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Trio's success boosts sport in hometown

Tuesday, April 08, 2008
By David Westin
Staff Writer

MILTON, Fla. --- Like most areas, the economy's not great in this Florida panhandle city.

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Murry Rutledge, the athletics director at Milton High School in Milton, Fla., said alumni Heath Slocum, Bubba Watson and Boo Weekley have given thousands back to their alma mater in the form of equipment and scholarships for players.

(Scott Michaux/Staff)

Milton and the surrounding area still haven't recovered from damage done by hurricanes Ivan and Dennis in 2005.

But thanks to a trio of local PGA Tour players making their Masters Tournament debuts Thursday -- Heath Slocum, Bubba Watson and Boo Weekley -- the golf business is doing OK.

The cash registers ring mainly because of newcomers who have been drawn to the game, and they're not just juniors.

"There are a lot of people in this area that are picking up this game that you would never think would be playing golf, and it's because of their success," said J.J. Dunn, the head pro at Tanglewood Golf and Country Club, where all three tour players grew up. "Even guys who are working at plants, car mechanics and roofers are playing."

Part of that attraction is Weekley, who before winning on the PGA Tour in Hilton Head Island, S.C., last season was known as much for his camouflage golf wardrobe and lust for hunting and fishing as his golf game.

"It's the average Joe who has never thought about picking up a golf club -- hunters and fishermen -- that are taking up golf," Dunn said. "Boo is a well-known personality around this area. They might catch him in some of the replays of his great interviews and say, 'If it's cool for Boo, let's give it a try.' "

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If not for novice golfers, courses such as Tanglewood would be hurting financially, Dunn said. The 100 or so members don't keep the course going. It's the weekend greens-fee players who do.

Tanglewood assistant pro Charles Daniels said strangers are even making out-of-the-way trips to play the course.

"We had a couple that stopped at the rest area on I-10, and they stopped somebody and asked where was Tanglewood," Daniels said. "They came out here and played, and it just so happened that Bubba was out here."

Daniels and Dunn work for Hiram Cook, who designed nine holes at Tanglewood and is now the head general partner there and at the more upscale Stonebrook Country Club in nearby Pace, where Watson lives.

"The enthusiasm is tremendous," said Cook, who has known Weekley and Watson since they were children. "Everybody watches golf, whether they're golfers or not. I see it in our juniors."

So does Dunn, who is involved in the Pensacola First Tee program.

"Between Stonebrook and Tanglewood, there are probably 50 or 60 juniors that have taken up the game in the past few years because of the exposure that these guys are giving the sport of golf to this area," Dunn said.

One of the up-and-coming juniors in town is Fisher Bodenstein, who is 14 and already has a 4 handicap. He was introduced to Weekley by his father, Cal Bodenstein, who was Weekley's P.E. instructor from sixth to eighth grade and often takes Weekley out on his charter fishing boat.

Nine months ago, Fisher saw Weekly on the practice range at the Moors Golf Club in Milton. Next thing you know, he's teeing off with a PGA Tour winner.

"I was going out to play 18, and I asked him to play with me, and he went and played with me," Fisher said. "Just typical Boo answer: 'Yeah, man, I'll go out there and play with you.' "

Said Weekley: "Fisher's like family anyway. It's great to be able to give back to him. I wish there were other kids that I could get a hold of and take out there and play golf with and show them a few things."

Cal Bodenstein said that when the Milton pros spot Fisher, "They come hug his neck and ask, 'How you doing; how's your game?' Those guys have such influence on these kids -- and it's a good influence."

"Golf is not just golf," Weekley said. "It teaches you respect for other people; it teaches you respect for yourself. You learn a little more about yourself as a person. When things start going bad, you don't give up."

As for giving back on a broader scale, all three players have done their part.

"They've given back thousands of dollars to our golf program," said Murry Rutledge, the athletics director at Milton High. "Besides equipment, they've given scholarships. Bubba gives a $2,000 scholarship each year to a golfer and girls basketball player. Heath and Boo are donating money to get a tournament started to, it is hoped, give $10,000 scholarships each year to a boy and girl golfer."

That tournament is the Triple Pro Classic at Tanglewood, which Weekley and Slocum participated in last weekend before coming to Augusta.

"I know we are very fortunate to be out here in this situation," Slocum said of being tour pros. "It's not a big money community. There are a lot of kids there that could use any help to go to school." Watson and his wife, Angie, sponsored the long-running Divot Derby so 204 youngsters could play last year for free on three different courses. Watson went to each course to shake each player's hand.

"I believe that we're going to inspire some kids, not necessarily to get on tour but to get that free education," Watson said. "It sounds weird that me and Boo want to do that, because we weren't the most studious. ... If we change one kid's life, it's worth it."

Reach David Westin at (706) 823-3224or david.westin@augustachronicle.com.

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