COLUMBIA – After sailing straight for 200 yards, the ball changes its trajectory, slicing sharply into the trees. The mishap doesn't matter, though, after hitting the first drive of his golf career, Hardeep Bhullar knew he found something good.
A lot has changed since that round on LA Nickel Golf Course in the early 1970s. Bhullar is the chairman and tournament director of the Columbia City Golf Championship. This weekend, the tournament will conduct its 35th annual competition. In addition to chairing the tournament for the past five years, Bhullar has competed in every tournament since the event began in 1975.
This year's three-day tournament begins Friday at Lake of the Woods Golf Course and continues Saturday at A.L. Gustin Golf Course before concluding with the championship round Sunday at the Country Club of Missouri. The Kiwanis Club of Columbia sponsors the tournament. The club says its mission is to help young children in their community through different organizations. Club fundraisers benefit local organizations such as the Douglas Athletic Association and Coyote Hill Children’s Home.
“It’s an opportunity for local golfers to compete against each other in a tournament of champions,” said John Haralson, president of the Kiwanis Club. “Bhullar is a true Kiwanian. He does a great job every year with it.”
Participants must qualify to play in the tournament. Past champions and others who have proven they can compete based on past performances receive permanent exemptions. The top 40 finishers in the previous year's city championship automatically qualify as do the top 32 finishers in the Francis Hagan Match Play Tournament.
According to Bhullar, the tournament strives to provide the highest level of competition for amateur golfers.
“The level of golf in Columbia has progressively improved," Bhullar, 65, said. "By providing a city championship, we can keep up with the national pace of golf.”
The city championship has made many efforts to maximize the prestige surrounding it. Every year, the tournament committee tries to make the tournament more “polished.” This includes constantly checking the condition of tournament courses, ensuring regulation fairways and roughs and using different techniques to maintain vegetation on courses.
According to Bhullar, despite declining levels of golf participation seen around the country because of the economic downturn, the city championship has not seen similar declines. Keeping the entry fee low encourages everyone who qualifys to participate. At $65, the tournament charges enough to pay expenses, seeing no profit or winning purse money. Instead, the competition pays in intangible profits.
“I feel very fortunate to have participated for so long, truly blessed,” Bhullar said. “This is my chance to give back to the community, and I get a great deal of enjoyment and satisfaction from that.”
Bhullar headed out for his first round when his boss, the late Glenn Gillespie, the former chairman of the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, needed one more player to complete a foursome. Since that initial slice, Bhullar has become a recognizable figure in the Columbia golf community.
“He has pioneered golf in Columbia and takes pride in that," said Brett Bieske, the head golf professional at Columbia Country Club. "He’s really responsible for getting young guys involved in tournament play, giving them a chance to compete on a higher level later in life. This is a big event for the city and golf community. Being a small market, it’s huge to showcase our premier golfers.”
The city championship has done just that for many Columbia golfers. Two-time city champion Jason Schultz, who was born in Tampa, Fla., but graduated from MU, currently competes on the Nationwide Tour where he has won $585,806 in his career including 16 top-10 finishes as well as one career win. He has also played in 51 PGA Tour events from 2006-2007.
Bhullar was not always a golf enthusiast. Growing up in Kenya, he was never exposed to golf. After completing his undergraduate work at Egerton University in Njoro, Kenya, Bhullar was invited to the University of Georgia to continue his studies. He eventually earned a Masters and Ph.D from UGA before coming to teach at MU in the School of Natural Resources.
Although he had no experience on the links, golf came easy to Bhullar because of his background in field hockey. The similar motions in field hockey translated well to a golf swing. The drive to compete came from his time spent on the Kenyan National Volleyball team in the early 1960s. His time on the national team took him to international tournaments all around the globe. He now uses that experience to make the Columbia golf scene as vibrant and competitive as possible.
“He has such a dedication to the golf community and a passion for the sport of golf,” said Richard Cole, the recreation supervisor of golf course programming for the city of Columbia. “One goal of summer if you’re a golfer is to play in the city championship.”
Two knee surgeries have not stopped Bhullar from driving, chipping and putting for 35 straight years at the city championship. Although he has claimed three second-place finishes, the real satisfaction for Bhullar comes from somewhere else.
“It’s a feel good thing to see such enthusiasm and spirit at the championship," he said. "I’m very proud of our golfers for the way they respect the game of golf.”
7:30 AM - Patrick Dreier, Doug Fessler, Don Steele (Tee #1); Doug Simpson, Bob Stockton, Tyler Daly (Tee #10)
7:40 AM - Robert Hooten, Charlie Schauwecker, David Moser (Tee #1); Curtis Gardner, Matt Geisler, David Smith (Tee #10)
7:50 AM - Andrew Arthur, Cruz Buchanan, Ron Eilers (Tee #1); Sam Marsh, Todd Keller, Isaac Breuer (Tee #10)
8 AM - Lance Hill, Jody MArtin, George Sheard (Tee #1); Russ Baker, Andrew McGinnis, Thomas Schuenemeyer (Tee #10)
8:10 AM - Marcus Rowe, Scott Priesmeyer, Kyle Stone (Tee #1); Jeff Presley, Francisco Trigo, Mike Wilson Jr. (Tee #10)
8:20 AM - Gary Hudspeth, Scott McDaniel, Dan Bingenheimer (Tee #1); TJ Sweet, Jeff Osborne, Brett Patton (Tee #10)
8:30 AM - Joe Bellmer, Ron Wilson, Brant Crawford (Tee #1); Steve Ball, Aaron Gray, Chad Goodson (Tee#10)
8:40 AM - Bret Wilson, John Selk, Tony Hoffman (Tee #1); John Spencer, Mike Rose, John Mathis (Tee #10)
8:50 AM - Bob Martin, Chris Johnson, Doug Daniels (Tee #1); Abe Anderson, Landon Willet, Ed Paten (Tee #10)
9:00 AM - Jamold Little, Mike Wilson, Scott Swain (Tee #1); Jerry Nelson, Travis Schumaker, Dan Farrow (Tee #10)
9:10 AM - Dee Sanders, Josh Brady, Tim Rooney (Tee #1); Casey Conway, Brock Hall, Aaron Wier (Tee #10)
9:20 AM - David Watson, Nick Wilson, John Weston (Tee #1); Lucas Black, Jeff Pope, Joe Neal (Tee #10)
9:30 AM - David Teel, David McDonald, Kyle Kovar (Tee #1); Dan Frost, Bob Hutton, Tim Parkinson (Tee #10).