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Signs for every pro who ever played in the Rockford Pro-Am sit jammed in a box in an office store room.

“It’s so much fun to go through it. It’s a Who’s Who of golf,” said longtime director Judi Sheley, who has worked at all 30 previous Pro-Ams.

The Pro-Am, to be held Monday at Forest Hills Country Club, became a Rockford institution with the likes of Arnold Palmer (1986), John Daly (1992), Gary Player (2000) and Lee Trevino and Nancy Lopez (both in 2001) playing here.

There is no other event like it in the nation: For 17 years, ever since the Amana Pro-Am folded in Iowa City in 1990, it has been the longest-running free-standing pro-am in the nation. The only older pro-ams are attached to a PGA Tournament.

The Rockford Pro-Am is a dinosaur. But, paradoxically, it’s also healthier than ever, thanks to widespread community support.

Two years ago, 27 foursomes, paying $1,500 per person, played with 27 pros. Monday’s 31st annual Pro-Am features 32 foursomes paying $2,000 per golfer.

“When we raised our amateur fee, we planned our budget around 30 foursomes,” Sheley said. “We thought we’d be lucky to have 30.”

Instead, those 32 sold out fast.

“We can’t figure it out,” Sheley said. “Obviously, we’re doing something right.”

The Rockford Pro-Am has shown occasional signs of weakness. Arnold Palmer fixed the first one in 1986, drawing 12,000 fans to an event that had begun to show waning interest. “That was the shot in the arm it needed,” Sheley said.

Bob Hope (1982), Daly, Trevino and Chi Chi Rodriguez (1996) also brought big crowds. Paul Azinger was the PGA Tour’s leading money winner when he came in 1993.

Fans paid the same price to see those players ($5) that they pay now; Sheley vows that will never change, as the Pro-Am’s main goal is for golf fans to walk down the fairways, mingle and interact with some of the world’s best pros for a nominal fee.

But the Pro-Am itself has changed significantly in the past few years. Spiraling costs means the Pro-Am no longer brings in many big names, with the exception of 15-time Pro-Am participant Billy Mayfair and Kenny Perry, playing for the seventh year in a row. The $50,000 price to bring Daly to Rockford in 1992 is close to 10 times that now for a golfer of similar stature. The Pro-Am, which donates profits to area charities — more than $1.5 million so far — can’t afford that.

Two years ago, Sheley wondered aloud how long the Pro-Am could continue. That’s no longer a worry. The community responded to her call — seven new sponsors signed on this year alone — to make the event as healthy as ever.

“Sponsors have told me, ‘We’ll never let this event die. If you need us, we’ll step up.’ ” said Bob Reitsch Jr., who has recruited the pros for more than 20 years.

Sheley said: “I don’t think anybody on that original board in their wildest imagination thought this thing would still last 31 years later. But about the time it starts to get saggy and looks like it might peter out, it gets a shot in the arm.”

Like Zach Johnson, who played in the Pro-Am two years ago, winning the Masters this year. Or 12-time Pro-Am participant Brad Bryant winning last week’s U.S. Senior Open.

“That was awesome,” Reitsch said.

The Pro-Am has now reinvented itself as an event that showcases future stars. It has always done that to some extent — Fred Couples, Rich Beem, Paul Azinger, Tom Lehman and Mark O’Meara all played in the Rockford Pro-Am before they won a major.

Reitsch signed long-hitter J.B. Holmes last year the week before he won his first PGA Tour title. Two years ago, he did the same with Johnson. Pro-Am rookie Ken Duke, who finished in the top 10 in four straight PGA events earlier this year, is a similar signing this year. Boo Weekley was, too, until he played his way out of the Pro-Am by qualifying for the British Open.

“We’re proud to get the up-and-comers,” Reitsch said.

Assistant sports editor Matt Trowbridge can be reached at 815-987-1383 or mtrowbridge@rrstar.com.

 
Rockford Pro-Am

What: The nation’s longest-running, free-standing pro-am not associated with a professional golf tournament. A one-day event featuring 32 professional golfers with 32 amateur foursomes.

When: Monday, July 16

Where: Forest Hills Country Club (5135 Forest Hills Road)

Cost: $5

Gates open: 7:30 a.m.

AMCORE Best Shot: 8:45 a.m.

Shotgun start: 10:45 a.m.