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ST. GERMAIN, WI | JANUARY 3, 2015
 
 

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The 1977 Vince Lombardi Golf Classic committee with the late President Gerald Ford. By Bud Lea
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Packer Plus | June 4, 2009

     They call it the Vince Lombardi Golf Classic at North Hills Country Club in Menomonee Falls, and that is important. Everyone who plays in the classic is a celebrity.
     The golf scores aren't important. The reason for playing is.
     Some of my old friends will be there. Bart Starr, of course, and members of the only team to win three straight NFL championships.
     They get together to help raise money for cancer research, education and patient care at Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee and other cancer clinics throughout Wisconsin in memory of their coach, who was committed to excellence and lost his life to cancer 39 years ago. 
     You will look at some of them, and you'll see aging people with too much stomach, receding hairlines, surgical scars and wrinkles. But I will look at them, and suddenly I'm 40 years younger.
     I'm a beat reporter again covering the Green Bay Packers and it's the 1960s and the glory years. I'm following a winner, a dynasty and having the time of my life.
     I won't see aging men with back problems and throbbing knees that tell them when it's going to rain. I will still see them as swift, trim, young athletes who made up the best team in the NFL.
     The event has become a yearly attraction. The price is right.
     Five dollars not only gets you in but you're also given a souvenir program for autographs. Bring your camera and fire away. 
     I guarantee that everyone on those championship teams has a story about Lombardi for you.
     If there was anything in Lombardi's life that approached his obsession with football during his time in Green Bay, it was golf.
     "My father's life was golf," Susan Lombardi said. "My mother hated to go to some vacation spots like Bermuda and Puerto Rico and the Bahamas with him because she knew he just wanted to play golf."
     If Lombardi relaxed on the golf course, his body language never failed to show it, as distinguished author David Maraniss pointed out in his book, "When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi." 
     Maraniss stated that Lombardi had a bulky frame with little suppleness. His swing was stiff and jerky, and he had a short follow-through, the golf equivalent, perhaps, of Jerry Kramer's placekicking. 
     "He looked ugly out there," Max McGee said. "You'd play a round with him, and think he'd shot a hundred and ten."
     I recall asking Starr about Lombardi's golf game. He told me that the coach had about a 12-handicap and refused to accept strokes from anyone. He always played with better golfers and often lost, but he kept trying to improve.
     Can you imagine playing golf with Lombardi, as his partner? You're coming up to the last hole. You need a 4-foot putt to win and the coach says, "You better make that!"
Starr said he never had the opportunity to play golf with Lombardi. "Perhaps it was better that way," he said.
     But he recalled the day in 1965 when Jack Nicklaus accepted an invitation to play an exhibition round at Oneida Golf and Riding Club in Green Bay. Nicklaus, Lombardi, Don Hutson and the local pro, Bill Furnari, teed off in front of hundreds of spectators. 
     Furnari, perhaps nervous because he was playing with Nicklaus, ballooned to an 83. Nicklaus shot 74. Lombardi scored 79. 
     Not every coach plays golf. Forrest Gregg wouldn't be caught dead on a golf course.
     The Lombardi Classic once tried to get Al McGuire to join the celebrity field at North Hills. McGuire told them he didn't play golf; they said everyone plays golf and wouldn't take no for an answer.
     So McGuire showed up one year at North Hills wearing sneakers and carrying a cloth bag containing a few beaten-up old wooden clubs. When a caddy tried to unzip the bag and wash McGuire's golf balls, the rusty zipper broke and some dirty balls with smiles on them rolled on the floor.
     They offered McGuire brand-new golf balls, but the former Marquette basketball coach declined. Golf wasn't his game, and it didn't matter what his equipment looked like.
     Spectators giggled and ducked when he teed off. McGuire hold the classic record of hitting two of them with his "where-did-it-go?" shots.
     They play best-ball, so a celebrity doesn't have to hit into a sand trap and take 11 to get out. Still, spectators have to watch out for those screaming shots that bounce over the green and into a concession stand.
     Academy award-winning actor George C. Scott will be remembered for splitting his pants, while bending over to line up a putt. Fuzzy Thurston unwound his beefy torso and missed the ball completely on the first tee. Can anyone forget Bob Uecker telling Ray Nitschke: "Ray, hold the ball while I hit it." Nitschke then walked over to the first tee and lay flat on his back while Uecker took a mock swing.
     They should have put a tent over North Hills and let Ringling Bros. run it. 
     Come out to North Hills...
     This is all about helping thousands win battles that no longer serve as automatic defeats, the way they did 40 years ago.
     Lombardi never played North Hills. He would have really enjoyed it. And he would have loved knowing about this charity in his name.

Fuzzy Thurston (left) and Mickey Mantle (second from the right) at the first annual Vince Lombardi Memorial Golf Classic on June 25, 1971.Bob Hope (right) and Bart Starr (second from the right) at the Vince Lombardi Golf Classic in Wisconsin.

More photos from the Vince Lombardi Golf Classic are available in the Golf Classic photo gallery and the Vince Lombardi Cancer Foundation photo gallery.