Mike Rowley and Scott Cartwright were driving home from one of those high-end pro-ams that are the stuff of legend in the country-club golf scene. The event had a great vibe, lots of name players (touring pros, club pros and high-level ams alike) and a familiar and familial atmosphere.
Rowley, the founder of the Straight Down apparel brand, wanted to bring something like that to their neck of the woods in California, along the Pacific coast just about 100 miles due west of Bakersfield in San Luis Obispo, home to Cal Poly. The hope was this event could have be a way for Rowley to thank Straight Down's customers in high-end country clubs and resorts. Straight Down had been in business a half-dozen years at that point, and several PGA Tour pros, including Loren Roberts and Dennis Paulson were wearing their clothes inside the ropes. The idea of a tournament to bring together customers, club pros and some touring friends seemed logical.
So, the Straight Down Fall Classic was born and first played in 1997 at San Luis Obispo Country Club. Paulson and California amateur golf legend Ed Cuff Jr. won the 36-hole pro-am fourball event. Paulson won the $5,000 first-place prize for the pro.
The next year, the first-place prize tripled, and Cartwright, who has been the head men's golf coach at Cal Poly for the last 17 years, won with amateur Dave Thomas. A year later, Rowley won his own event for the first time with PGA Tour pro Roger Tambellini.
The 22nd edition of the event is this week, again at San Luis Obispo Country Club. Rowley's the defending champion, for the fifth time, winning with Jason Ballard, the head pro at Rochester's Oak Hill Country Club, in 2017.
The purse has fluctuated some over the years, but not a whole lot else about the event has changed much. Rowley and Cartwright are very much prinicples of the tournament. Rowley was inspired by that pro-am so many years ago, but he longed to create a continuity with his similar to the old Crosby Clambake. He wanted familiar names to return year after year. He wanted to welcome pros from the nation's best clubs. He wanted to keep welcoming the lilkes of Loren Roberts, Scott Simpson, Larry Mize and players who have worn Straight Down straight away.
Past participants have included Fred Couples, John Daly, Tom Lehman, Bryson DeChambeau and Tom Weiskopf.
For years, the event was in November, with a date friendly to the end of the PGA Tour's fall stretch and the West Coast conclusion to the PGA Tour Champions schedule. Since the PGA Tour has adopted a wraparound season, however, the event has been forced into December to get as many of the returning pros as possible.
This year's field features a mix of PGA Tour, Web.com Tour and PGA Tour Champions pros, including Roberts, Simpson, Jason Gore, Ed Loar, Paul Stankowski, Steve Pate, Kevin Stadler, Tom Hoge, Brandon Harkins and 2017-18 PGA Tour rookie Conrad Shindler. Amateurs like Stewart Hagestad and Tim Mickelson are part of the party, too.
Like each year, the week kicks off on Friday with The Woody pro-am-am. The pro-am teams are joined by three amateurs for a fun round at San Luis Obispo, all in the name of Don Woodward. Woodward, an area businessman and long-time member at San Luis Obispo, passed away in February 2010 at the age of 46 after a 17-month battle with ALS. Now the pro-am, known as The Woody, is a chance to honor his life and raise money in furthering the search for a cure for the disease.
While Straight Down's name is on the tournament, this event isn't a branding exercise. It's about bringing together long-time friends at an annual reunion, with the chance to catch up, cut up and have some fun playing golf.
The Fall Classic is free to attend, and it's open to the public. There's food and beverage to purchase, while fans can walk in close proximity to the players, just like old-fashioned exhibitions.