Special Olympics Utah

A "selfie" of Standard-Examiner sports columnist Jim Burton and his playing partner, Paul, after participating in the Utah Open's Special Olympics Utah Short Game Challenge Monday at Provo's Riverside Country Club, site of the 2014 Utah Open.

Like Christmas day when I was a kid, Day One of Utah Open week is marked on my calendar.

Granted, I’m a little older -- notice I didn’t say “mature” -- and more sophisticated than I was back when I openly counted the days until Santa’s visit. Now, instead of lugging a tattered JCPenny Christmas catalog around the house, I simply make a couple more trips to the golf course just to keep the visions of birdies dancing in my head.

Obviously, I’m not playing in the actual tournament, which runs this Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the Riverside Country Club in Provo. But I really enjoy golf -- playing it, watching it and covering it for the Standard-Examiner -- and extra time spent on the course keeps me inspired.

Today, I’m definitely inspired.

For a few years now the folks who run the Utah Open have graciously invited me to play in the first pro-am of the week, the one for members of the media who’ll be covering the tournament later in the week.

It gives us a chance to play alongside the professionals who’ll be playing on the weekend while allowing us to get a good first-hand look at the course. It also gives tournament organizers a chance to share their message with us, which in turn they hope will be shared with you, our readers, viewers and listeners.

Personally speaking, teeing it up with a pro like former Utah Open champion and current Valley View assistant Pete Stone -- as I did Monday -- is pretty darn cool. But it’s really nothing compared to what happened afterward when I got to play with my new friend, Paul.

Paul is a Utah Special Olympian from West Valley City, who recently took up golf. He and I were teammates in the annual Special Olympics Utah Short Game Challenge, an event that pairs a member of the media with a Special Olympic athlete in a test of putting and chipping.

Monday marked the third opportunity I’ve had to participate in the Short Game Challenge and it never gets old. I can’t imagine it ever will. At the risk of sounding contrived or condescending, it really is the best part of the entire week and I wasn’t kidding when I referred to Paul as a new friend. Meeting and competing with the athletes is an honor and an awesome experience, one I look forward to each summer.

I’m not alone either.

“That’s a lot of fun, that’s what it’s all about,” said Davis Park assistant pro Zach Johnson, the defending Utah Open champ, who won Monday’s Short Game Challenge along with his partner, Chase Lodder.

Two years ago, when the Utah Open was held at Farmington’s Oakridge Country Club, former champ Clay Ogden said the same things.

Building relationships. Giving back. Appreciating the hard work and dedication of the Special Olympic athletes.

At all levels of professional golf, tournaments are known for their charitable efforts. Naturally, they’re about seriously competitive golf, but the people who run them long ago figured out the importance of giving back, especially within their own communities.

Golf fans know this, but I’m not sure casual sports fans do.

Earlier this year the PGA Tour announced it has surpassed the $2 billion mark in all-time charitable contributions, including $133 million last year alone. The Utah Open isn’t a PGA Tour event, but the competition is real and its lively and, yes, the tournament seeks to give back.

Its relationship with Special Olympics goes back to the 1990s and last year the tournament raised more than $40,000 for the cause. Organizers expect to surpass that amount this year.

Wherever it’s played, being able to tee it up in the first pro-am event of Utah Open week is something I look forward to all year, like a kid at Christmas. But being able to play even a small role in the tournament’s relationship with the Special Olympics is better than anything Santa ever brought.

Jim Burton is the Standard-Examiner’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 801-625-4265 or at jburton@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter @StandardExJimbo

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