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Whitten Excited About Local Senior Debut
By Kelly Hill

For the first time since it became a stop on the Senior PGA Tour 12 years ago, the First of America Classic in Grand Rapids will feature a total purse of $1 million this year. The tournament, which was originally played at The Highlands on the west side of Grand Rapids but was moved to Egypt Valley Country Club in Ada three years ago, has steadily increased its prize money. The event featured a total purse of $700,000 in 1995 and had a total purse of $850,000 last year. According to Senior PGA Tour regulations, the tournament champion will receive 15 percent of the total purse, or $150,000.

Dave Stockton collected his 15 percent of last year's $850,000 purse as he won the event with a 10-under-par 206, firing a 68-69-69-206 for the 54-hole tournament.

While Gil Morgan has committed to play in this year's First of America Classic and the tournament's executive director, Jeff Purser, said that the presence of golf legends Lee Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez is "probable," this year's tournament field will also feature a local flair as Buddy Whitten, the Director of Golf at Blythefield Country Club near Rockford, who joined the Senior PGA Tour earlier this season, will return to play in his hometown's premier golf event.

Whitten, who is 50, battled tendonitis throughout the spring and didn't play particularly well. "I haven't scored well or played well at all," Whitten said in early June. "I am working through some bad tendonitis. My wedges have been horrendous because I can't take a divot. It's frustrating, but the only other option is not to play. A lot of people play hurt on the Senior Tour so I have to suck it up and decide to do it or not to do it."

So far, Whitten has decided to do it. "The mind is willing but the body is not," he said. "I am missing a lot of short shots, but the next thing you know a 68 turns into a 72 and then a 72 turns into a 74. It has been getting better," Whitten said of the tendonitis, "but you've got to babysit it. And you can't take divots."

Whitten planned to play in the U.S. Senior Open and was seriously considering playing in the Ford Senior Players Championship, should he qualify, "because a lot of people from Grand Rapids want to come over to watch me play."

Those people from Grand Rapids will not have far to go to watch Whitten play the Classic Course at Egypt Valley. Whitten has played Egypt Valley several times, but since the Classic Course features half of each of the club's two courses, the Ridge and the Valley courses, Whitten has never played the 18 as it is set up for the Classic.

"I have never played like this in my hometown since I was a junior, so it has been a long time," Whitten commented. "I am looking forward to it; it should be fun. Everyone will be excited about it." That excitement may cause Whitten some additional pressure. "Maybe it will be more pressure," he said, "but I won't really know that until I get out there and do it. I have never played the course the way it is set up for the tournament but the two nines they use for the tournament are probably the two nines that I like the best."

A series of pre-tournament events have been added to this year's First of America Classic schedule and most of them will be staged Tuesday, Aug. 12. The full day's activities include an Executive Women's Clinic at 9 a.m., the Hershey's Junior Clinic at 9:30 a.m., the $14,000 Custer Shoot-Out at 2 p.m. and the Spartan Stores/Pillsbury Skills Challenge.

Since its inception, the First of America Classic has donated more than $1.4 million to West Michigan charities, and while numerous other West Michigan charities will benefit from the proceeds of this year's First of America Classic, the tournament's lead charity this summer is the Hope Network. A private, non-profit organization serving persons who have a disability or disadvantage, Hope Network serves more than 5,000 people annually in West Michigan as well as in the southeast, southwest, central and northern parts of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. The funds received from this year's tournament have been earmarked for a family resource center.

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