Bonded By Golf
By Russ Christ
Golf is all about the experience. It seems the most passionate among us pass the game down to the next generation, teaching and sharing golf with our kids and grandkids. So it’s not surprising that one of the most popular tournaments in Arizona is more about bloodlines and bonding than competition. The annual Father/Son Championship is a blend of family traditions and shared memories built over decades.
This golf get-together has been going on for almost five decades at Antelope Hills, a 36-hole municipal course in Prescott. It’s normally held the first weekend in June and always has a waiting list. Two-man teams play a 36-hole modified Chapman Format (alternate shot with selected drives). Dads may compete with up to three sons and at least one partner must be an AGA member. There are three divisions: Pro (if one member of the team is a professional); Handicap (both must have a USGA Handicap Index) and Callaway (if one or both don’t have a handicap).
Paul Parker, the director of golf at Antelope Hills, came to Prescott from Kansas, and has only tasted the tradition. But he’s impressed.
“What’s neat is there are several grandfather’s that started playing in this tournament as sons,” Parker said. “Once you start playing it becomes like a family reunion.”
Lorraine Thies, assistant executive director of the AGA, has been a part of the Father/Son since she started working with the association in 1994. “There’s about 475 fathers and sons that participate each year,” Thies said. “The players range in age from about eight years old to 80 plus. It’s awesome—my favorite event of the year.”
From Dairy Queen to Whiskey Row
Tom Cunningham, executive director of the Junior Golf Association of Arizona, has played in 25 consecutive Father/Son Championships. Jeff and Jim, Cunningham’s 37- year-old twins, tagged along when Antelope Hills had only the North Course in the early 1980’s. Another son, Mike, 31, also competes, while Tom’s fourth son, Scott, is happy to play in the practice round.
Cunningham said it’s been a joy to watch his sons mature over the years. When his boys were young he’d drive them to softball games and Dairy Queen after golf. “Then they turned 21 and it changed to the dog track and Whiskey Row,” Cunningham said, laughing. Now, Cunningham’s six-year-old grandson, Connor, tags along. “When they were younger it was all about trying to do well,” he said. “It’s evolved into a family experience with a lot of tradition.”
First Hero, Then Slug
Brooks Thiele, a relative newcomer to the Father/Son relishes this particular weekend. For the last four years, he’s teamed up with sons Colby, 32, and Nicholas, 26. “It’s a marvelous event,” he said. “It’s amazing the instant camaraderie that occurs among the families.”
Thiele said Colby and Nicholas schedule the Father/Son into their calendars months in advance. One of them was recently asked to transfer to a new job with his company. He told them that the Father/Son took precedence and he couldn’t make the move until after the event. “They just know that’s what they’re going to do,” Thiele said. “It’s a neat bonding experience for us.”
Dr.Wayne Kuhl, an internal medicine specialist, plays in the Father/Son with his son’s Jason, 36, Aaron, 33, and Brian, 30. “Jason and I have played for 28 consecutive years,” Kuhl said. “In the old days [after golf] we’d play video games and go to movies. Now we shoot pool and have adult beverages.” This year Jason and Aaron brought their sons. “I’m encouraged that everyone wants to do this on a long-term basis,”Kuhl admits.“Now that their kids are involved they are even more enthusiastic.”
The alternate shot format makes the tournament interesting.
“Everybody gets into the game so to speak,” Thiele said. “Ican be a hero or a slug from one shot to another. My boys talk (smack) back and forth all the time.”
Cunningham agrees. He once drained a 30-foot putt for one son, and then missed a two-footer with another on the same green. “The emotion level there is so great,” Cunningham said. “One of them is giving you a high five and the other is sitting in the cart wondering what in the world is wrong.”
Wayne Kuhl has experienced similar emotions. “Invariably, you make a putt for one of them and miss all the putts for the others,” he said.
Bob Kernagis, 73, is fortunate to have four sons (Steve,Mike, John and Ken). Since 1975—with only a couple years missed in the 1980’s—Bob has traveled from Mesa to Prescott with a combination of family and friends that now numbers nearly 40.
The sons usually have to earn their way up I-17. “They have to qualify to play with me,” Kernagis said. “I can only play with three. And they usually battle it out every year. It’s all about bonding and companionship,” he said.
Steve Kernagis was 12 when he played in his first Father/Son with his Dad. “A bunch of families drove up in motor homes and camped out on the fourth hole,” he remembered.
Ironically, 31 years later, in 2006, Ken made a hole-in-one on the same hole where they used to camp. “What was really funny,”Mike said, “was that he had drawn a smiley face on his golf ball and when we got up to the green the ball was halfway in the hole with the face looking directly at us. It was priceless.”
Three decades earlier the Kernagis kids and their friends slept on the North Course in sleeping bags while the dad’s played cards and then crashed in the motor homes. They used flashlights and lanterns to light up the greens late at night to determine the best putter. “All you could see,” Steve said, “was the lantern where you were putting from and the lantern where the hole was.”
Clan Kernagis now includes Steve’s sons. Robbie, 22, Richie, 17, and Riley, 16, all very good golfers. In 2003, Steve and Robbie won the overall championship.
36 and Counting
Like Cunningham, Kuhl and Kernagis, Ted and Buddy Pate are veterans.
Ted Pate, a teacher, was 12 years old in 1970 when he played in his first Father/Son. His father, Buddy Pate, who turned 71 this year, signed them up. They promptly won the ninth flight that first year. “I was obsessed with playing golf as a kid,” Pate said, “and he probably wanted to encourage me.”
It’s been a tradition ever since.
“Every year as a family we set aside the first weekend in June to attend the golf tournament,” Ted said. “It’s become a family reunion.”
Buddy and Ted have been to 36 Father/Son tournaments, missing only two since 1970 because of a death or illness in the family.
Now they bring 15 people with them.
“I think we could fill books with all the memories that surround the tournament,” Ted said. “There are lots of jokes, tons of stress and many, many friends.”
For Ted, the Father/Son is more than hitting fairways and greens and getting up and down from the bunker. It’s synonymous with dining out at nearly every eatery in Prescott, camping at Lynx Creek or renting a cabin, watching movies, going to the craft and car shows and dancing at night.
“What started out as a tournament with my father and I has become the Pate family golf event of the year,” he said. “Dad added my brothers, Tom, 47, and Tim, 42, into the mix years ago.”
When the tournament ends every year the Pate’s collect their scorecards to see who won. Ted’s sons, Bryan, 23, from Mesa, and John, 22, from Tucson, joined the party in 1998. “We’re all focused,” Pate said, “on who will hold the bragging rights for the next 12 months.”