By Bob Denney
Had film documentarian Ken Burns chosen the Amana VIP Golf Tournament, what would his camera have picked up during a 24-year kaleidoscopic adventure in marketing, professional golf, entertainment and charity?
Isn’t that Lee Trevino, a day after his 1968 U.S. Open victory at Oak Hill, making wisecracks on the first tee? Is that really Joe DiMaggio standing against a column in 1973 in the restaurant at the old Highlander Inn regaling the media with Yankee lore?
George “Goober” Lindsey, fresh from bringing down the house last night on stage, is calling out Boots Randolph and Roy Clark about their plans after 18 holes. Tom Watson — a week removed from winning the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach — is posing for photos while Fuzzy Zoeller is cracking up the galleries on the back nine.
President Gerald Ford, just a few years from sitting in the White House, has more than enough of a Secret Service entourage, larger than Dinah Shore’s, and the president stayed largely within the ropes during one of his three tours of Finkbine Golf Course in Iowa City.
Tell me I didn’t see comedian Flip Wilson throw his cap, gloves, shirt and shoes into the gallery after he finished 18? Hey, this wasn’t your mom ’n pop’s pro-am, was it?
“I don’t know who coined ‘the Masters of the Pro-Ams,’ but that was not an exaggeration for the Amana VIP,” said 85-year-old Bob Goalby, the 1968 Masters Champion from Belleville, Ill., who played in all of the Amana VIPs.
Had Burns’ cameras been in Iowa City in June 1979, he would have witnessed Billy Martin jumping into a golf cart at the 13th tee and be driven to a helicopter. Yankees Owner George Steinbrenner had just dialed the Finkbine clubhouse, where Lou King, then-Amana senior vice president of marketing, was on the other end of the line. Steinbrenner demanded that King stop Billy in the middle of his round and have him sent back to the Big Apple to be rehired as Yankees manager.
“Mr. Steinbrenner, you’ll have to wait until he has at least made the turn,” King recalls his response before hanging up. “We’ll get the word to him.”
The Amana VIP golf tournament, conceived after a golf round at Bal Harbour, Fla., between Amana founder George Foerstner and PGA Tour veteran Julius Boros, was the most successful pro-amateur event of its kind in sports. It is arguably the most unique sporting event with Iowa roots.
From 1967 through 1990, the Amana VIP attracted many of the legendary and rising stars in golf along with a mix of celebrities from all levels of the entertainment industry. The first Amana VIP was conducted without galleries at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va. One of the guests was former University of Iowa athletic director and legendary football coach, Forest Evashevski.
Many attendees complained of the difficult travel to The Greenbrier and Evy invited Amana to host the event at Finkbine the following year. Because Amana distributors and dealers — rewarded for their salesmanship — were paired with Tour professionals and celebrities, Foerstner didn’t want to open the gates to the public. He thought it would make the employees more uncomfortable. The day before the 1968 tournament, Foerstner agreed to sell tickets to the event. Galleries as large as 20,000-plus poured through the gates, and it became the premier fundraising event for the University of Iowa athletic scholarship fund.
Former Iowa men’s athletic director, Bump Elliott, was the conduit, King says, “To a great relationship between the university and the VIP. Bump was the key to our getting what we needed in order that we could bring big-time golf to Iowa.”
Former Iowa women’s athletic director Dr. Christine Grant praised the event for “bringing the largest single donations to women’s collegiate sports.” In the early 1980s, Hawkeye women’s athletics averaged $67,000 from the Amana VIP. The tournament also spawned copycats, with companies keeping Amana’s offices on speed dial in the hope that they might share in a winning formula.
“My phone was ringing all the time with companies asking how we did it and what could we do to give them any help,” says King. “The truth is we were blessed with many good people in both golf and entertainment. They became our best recruiters. Once they got to Iowa City and saw the great people, the hospitality they felt they were home.”