You may not know his name, but you know his voice if you spend any time near the first tee during the Principal Charity Classic. Cleo Brown, age 80, has been the tournament’s official starter every year. Principal Charity Classic Senior Reporter Rick Brown (no relation….except for a shared golf gene!) recently talked with one of the Classic’s most recognizable volunteers.
RB: When did you start as a tournament volunteer?
CB: We (Dr. Robert Brooks and Brown) started in 2001, which was the first year. I was a starter out at Hyperion for the Herman Sani (one of Iowa’s biggest amateur tournaments) and someone asked me if I would like to be a starter at the Principal Charity Classic. I said, sure, I’d give it a try. That’s really where I got my start.
RB: Were you nervous or intimidated when you got started?
CB: I was not. I’ve always been a pretty good speaker in public and not one to be real nervous. I get more nervous when I have a 10-foot putt for par. I’ve never known a stranger, and I’ve always been very forward.
RB: Who have been some of your favorite players?
CB: I would say toward the top of the list, and maybe at the top of the list, would be Arnold Palmer. I met him the one year he came (2001). He came up to me and he had a big ol’ smile on his face and extended his hand like he had known me forever, and I had never met him. After talking to him a little bit, you feel like you’ve known him all your life.
RB: Are there any moments that have stuck with you over the years?
CB: Probably Fuzzy Zoeller. He’s always just a character. He doesn’t like long intros. He’ll tell you, “Get on with it. If you’re not through, I’m going to hit the ball.”
RB: I’ve heard there’s another story centering on Chien Soo Lu and one of Wakonda’s majestic oak trees.
CB: Just a great guy, and funny. My sons were both there. Chien Soo Lu and I were talking and pretty soon he looked at that large tree that overlooks the first tee at Wakonda. He looked at me, and he looked at that tree, and he asked my son, Jim, “Which one is older, your dad or that tree?” I said, “Me.” He got on No. 4 tee, he looked down and pointed toward the oak tree. When he came back last year, he pointed at the tree.
RB: Tell me your story about Dave Stockton, and the year he was paired with Palmer.
CB: Palmer wasn’t on the tee yet, and it was close to the (starting) time. I was pretty new at that time as a starter. And I knew what the rules were, and he’s got to be there when the time comes. He wasn’t there, he wasn’t there, and I kept looking at the clock. Stockton came over, looked at me and said, “Don’t even think about it.” About that time here comes Palmer. They think, and golf thinks, that he was the instigator of big-time golf for them, and they respect that. And rightfully so.
RB: Have you ever had a pinch-me moment, when you’re watching golf on TV and you think, “Hey, I know that guy?”
CB: Absolutely. It happens very time, every tournament. I’ll always say, “There was a great guy and there was this experience.’”
RB: Like the time Tom Lehman made a request, and you did what he asked?
CB: I’m always on No. 1 tee, and No. 4 tee is relatively close there (at Wakonda). No. 1 has priority and they’re on the clock. We don’t start them early or late. It’s essential that they’re on time. And we have right-of-way on the first tee. That was when we introduced the players and gave part of their bios. Past champion of this, and this, and this. And Tom Lehman was the last player to be introduced. The player right ahead of him was getting ready to hit and the guys on No. 4 had been waiting for us to clear so they could hit. And Lehman says, “Don’t give me any of that long intro, just say that I’m from Minneapolis. That would be great and we won’t hold those guys up any more.” I thought that was really a touch of class, and I did what he asked. After he hit he came over, gave me a high five and said, “I appreciate you doing that.”
RB: Does it make it extra special to have your sons, Jim and Jon, helping you with the starting duties?
CB: That’s a great experience and the greatest thing. It’s an honor for me to have them there and to help me, and see he respect they show the other players. Because they’ve grown up watching these guys and they’re their idols. My boys are both good golfers and good gentlemen. And it’s my honor and pleasure to have them there and to work with me.
RB: Are you thinking about retiring from your starter duties any time soon?
CB: Each year I say, “Well, maybe one more year.” The pro-am is a tough thing. It requires a lot of work, and you find yourself running after yourself to get it done. But once the pros start on Friday, that’s a different ballgame, and it’s fun. When it’s over you think, “Boy, I’m not going to do this again.” But along about Christmas time and January and February, you start to get the urge. I’ll be there. They’ll have to carry me off (the tee).
RB: As someone who loves golf, how fortunate do you feel to have an event like this in our city?
CB: It’s fantastic. I love it, and the people back it and support it. I think it’s very important to have it here.
By Rick Brown, Principal Charity Classic Senior Reporter