CEDAR RAPIDS — Eight years and still going strong.
The weather was almost perfect. The crowds were good and fluid as spectators ebbed and flowed throughout the day Monday at Elmcrest Country Club.
The Zach Johnson Foundation Classic maintains its appeal, bringing celebrities from sports and entertainment together with the PGA veteran’s hometown faithful. At the heart of it all is the Kids on Course charity that pumps the life blood into the successful event.
“Today was a fun day,” Johnson told the crowd after his round. “Today was an entertainment day. Today was a day for Cedar Rapids to come out and have fun and enjoy themselves.
“I know why I play this game and one of the reasons is to come back to where it started, give back and be a good steward of that. I don’t take that lightly.”
Kids on Course has provided tutoring, enrichment, summer learning programs, long-term mentoring and support parent engagement in numerous Cedar Rapids Community School District elementary and middle schools. Studies have shown students in the program score better in math and reading, according to Kids on Course Program Director Beth Malicki.
“Part of the reason we are able to keep doing what we’re doing, because we are seeing the results,” Johnson said. “We are seeing the benefit. We are seeing them flourish. We are seeing their dreams somewhat being realized.
“We are seeing it in academically, socially, athletically and the arts,” said Johnson, a former Cedar Rapids Regis and Drake golfer. “We are seeing them expand their lives in all of that. The things I took for granted they have at their fingertips and are running with it. It’s just special.”
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The program is in a monumental transition with its inaugural class moving on to high school this fall. Johnson joked that it means he is getting old, but acknowledged the special milestone. Once in high school, those in the program will help them prepare for the future, offering scholarships for post-secondary opportunities.
“We’re allowing them to reach their potential and beyond,” Johnson said. “Both in the classroom and out, and that is the key.”
This year, the event raised a record $1,332,000 from the golf event, gala held the night before golf and sponsorship. The increased moneys will go to a record number of kids, who see the benefits. Kids on Course started with just 60 children enrolled and now boasts more than 800 in the yearlong program. There are plans to add another school into the mix for the 2019-20 school year.
“We’re delighted,” Malicki said. “It’s gaining steam and momentum.”
The field remained stacked with notable names. Pro Football Hall of Famer and former Cedar Rapids Regis quarterback Kurt Warner returned as one of six with NFL ties, including former Hawkeyes Dallas Clark, Scott Chandler and Danan Hughes.
The PGA players turned out in full force, including Tony Finau, Jason Dufner, Bill and Jay Haas, Kyle Stanley, Steve Stricker and the incomparable John Daly. Stricker made his second appearance in the ZJFC.
“What Zach and (wife) Kim (Barclay) are doing for the community is great,” Stricker said. “That’s why I’m back.”
“I appreciate being here.”
The players’ support of the cause is meaningful to Johnson. They take time out of their normal routine, traveling from one tournament to the next, to help the fundraising effort.
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“They don’t have to be here,” Johnson said. “It’s not like it’s a duty of theirs but they understand it’s a cool responsibility, a huge responsibility, so for them to join me, my wife, the board and mission it’s humbling. It’s a cool thing.”
Many fans get the chance to be up close and personal with professional athletes and celebrities that aren’t regulars to this area. Kenzie Jensen will be a senior at Linn-Mar this fall. She worked her fourth ZJFC, carrying the sign with names for Finau’s group. She held the same job for Clark last year.
“It’s phenomenal,” Jensen said of the experience. “Tony Finau is very nice and outgoing.”
He even surprised her by taking the sign in his hands and placing the putter in hers on the 18th hole. Jensen putted for him in front of the gallery of people huddled around the green.
“That was awesome,” Jensen said. “It was a great experience.”
Jensen is a member of the Lions golf team and is expected to contend for one of the team’s top spots in the spring. She may have received a few pointers from the pro during the round.
“Yes,” Jensen said. “He helped me with my putt. He coached me through it.”
A date for the ninth ZJFC has not been announced but will be determined soon, according to event organizers.
“We’re not content with right now,” Johnson said. “We’re not content with just what we’re doing right now. We have loftier goals.”
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