This weekend, the NewsChannel 7 Golf Classic returns to it's birthplace, the Wausau Country Club, for it's 50th edition.
49 years ago, in the spring on 1961, then NewsChannel 7 sports director Mark Zelich came up with the idea for the Golf Classic.
"Did I ever think about it lasting 50 years, I never even thought of 50 years," Zelish said. Back then at my age I was thinking in terms of 50 days."
"He had done other things prior to this," wife Nancy said. "They seemed to work out. It's a good idea, give it a try."
"I never thought about numbers. All I wanted were a lot of people in that tournament."
In a few short months, Zelich's idea was a reality and the first tournament was a resounding success.
"The men took off right off the bat. It encouraged me, it made me feel good. I knew then we had a winner."
A full field of 176 men played in the inaugural event in 1961. From then on it was the tournament to see and be seen.
"Oh, I think I was pretty excited to play in a tournament of that caliber," said Harlan "Fuzzy" Hunger, a 4-time champ ('63, '68, '70, '72). "I just looked forward to it, and it kept growing, we all ha fun."
"For this area, it was the greatest thing for to hit the golfing community, 5-time winner Gary Kordus said ('74, '76, '80, '82, '88). "Prior to that we had nothing around here."
"It was big time," added 2-time winner Dave Raab ('62, '71). "Channel 7 was charging admission at that time, we had special parking privileges, and it was big crowds."
In 1965, the Women's Classic came along.
"The ladies tournament was played on a Monday after the tournament. Which is tough for the ladies. A lot of them work," said Zelich. Some had families. We moved it to Thursday/Friday the following year in 1966 and that immediately increased the attendance."
"I've always been competitive. And anytime I can play golf, and play against better competition, you play better, your game rises to the occasion," Marcy Mirman said, a 14 year veteran of the Women's Classic.
In 2007, another wrinkle was added to the weekend with the addition of the Senior Men's Classic.
For 50 years, there have been three constants with the NewsChannel 7 Golf Classic. The trophy, the founder and the coach. What's a Golf Classic without Newman girls basketball coach Tom Weinkauf? The only player to take part in all 50 events.
"It;s a wonderful tournament. A wonderful event in central Wisconsin," Weinkauf said. "You get the best players. At one time I felt I felt I was fairly competitive. Now of course with these young studs that are as good as they are it's hard to compete. But I still enjoy going out there and playing against them."
A total of 18 high schoolers will take part over the 4-day weekend. The influx of youth is what has kept the Classic alive after a half century.
"I've been playing since I was 16 years old," 2009 Classic champion Dewey Pechinski said. "It was one of my goals to win it and I'm happy to accomplish one of my goals.
"Guys like Fuzzy Hunger and Dave Raab, those guys were multiple winners," added Kordus. "These were guys that I grew up as a kid following in their footsteps."
"The heartwarming thing to me was the fact that the men, and the women in this tournament" Zelich said, "had children and they were certainly getting them immersed in golf. And perhaps that they may someday be able to play in the Channel 7. Perhaps, even holding that out as a carrott, saying someday you can play in the Channel 7.
Nearly 300 golfers will tee it up at the Wausau Country Club this weekend. And the man who brought it to life will be right there watching it over.
"He just took an interest in all the people that played in it. And so it was important to him that you came back and play again," said 9-time women's champion Marlene Schroedel.
"I look at it as...I was a mechanic. I put this car together. And I had all these people helping me put this car together. But once it got on the track I need a driver. I could not drive it. And that's what those golfers were, they drove what we built," Zelich said.
The golfing weekend gets started Thursday with the opening round of the Senior Men. On Friday, the championship round for the Senior Men, and the Women's. Saturday and Sunday is the Classic.
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