How did it happen that a city of 45,000 situated on the Mississippi River, with the only major airport 120 miles away, became host to one of the largest junior golf tournaments in the World? “Three things,” says Pepsi Little People’s Founder and Executive Director Nan Ryan, “and not necessarily in this order”.
“1. The hospitality of Quincy and the friendliness and support of the volunteers
“2. The organization and pro-like structure of the tournament
“3. High quality international competition for all ages
“And maybe 4. I lived in Quincy in 1973 when all of this started”.
The idea for a junior golf tournament in the Midwest began with an offhand statement by a newspaper reporter to Nan when she was playing in the Quincy Women’s City Golf Championships in 1973.
“It’s too bad there isn’t a junior tournament in the Midwest like the International in Florida,” he said.
Nan’s answer – “I think I’ll start one.”
Actually, Quincy is an ideal location for a junior golf tournament. The people of Quincy love golf and golfers. Golf course architect D.A. Weibring, who played on the PGA Tour and is now on the Champions Tour, grew up in Quincy. So did renowned Golf Course Superintendent Oscar Miles. And D.A. Points, winner of the 2011 AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and the 2013 Shell Houston Open, and Matt Weibring, who have played on both the Nationwide and PGA Tours, have roots in Quincy. And let us not forget Luke Guthrie, Quincyan and University of Illinois star golfer now competing on the PGA Tour.
One of the first things Nan did was to find sponsors – Pepsi Cola Quincy Bottling Company (now Refreshment Services Pepsi) and Bergman Meat Packing of Pittsfield. Both had products that kids love – Pepsi and hot dogs. Pepsi has continued as the major and name sponsor since 1974. Bergman bowed out in 1982. In 2012, Titan International Inc. signed on as a co-title sponsor and the championship was re-named the Pepsi Titan Little People’s Golf Championships and Pepsi Titan LP Collegiate Golf Championships. Titan withdrew their sponsorship after the 2014 tournament, and the tournament is once again the PEPSI Little People’s Golf Championships.
Nan’s daughter, Kathleen, now an Associate Professor of Plant and Microbial Biology at Berkeley, named the tournament at age 4. “It’s for Little People’s isn’t it?”, she said, “so why not call it Little People’s”.
The tournament logo features the silhouettes of Kathleen and D.A.’s son Matt Weibring, who competed in the tournament several years. Kathleen still holds the record of finishing in the top three places for nine consecutive years.
Starting in 1974, Spalding Golf contributed logoed golf balls for each contestant. That tradition has been carried on throughout the years with Top-Flite Golf, and now Callaway Golf making this generous donation.
Pepsi Little People’s started on the 9-hole Cedar Crest Country Club course in Quincy – a club where all the work was done by member volunteers.
“It was the ideal place to start,” remembers Nan, “because we wanted to give something back to the golfing community, particularly the high school golf teams.”
There were 174 players aged 3 through 15 that first year, 1974, coming from 13 states and Canada. Nan’s good friend, the late Marilynn Smith, a Co-Founder of the Ladies PGA and the LPGA Teaching Division, and former LPGA Tour player, attended the tournament, giving a golf clinic and talking and playing with the contestants.
It became apparent in 1975 that another course needed to be added, so the 27 holes at Westview Golf Course were brought into play. The tournament soon outgrew that 36 holes, and more courses were added, until in 2010, six golf course (99 holes) in Quincy and three neighboring cities, were used to accommodate the players aged 3 through 22. In 2020, two Quincy courses will again host the golfers aged 3 through 18.
Pepsi Little People’s is one of the largest junior golf tournaments in the World, and is the oldest continuous running event with a 3-5 year-old division. The age limit was increased to 17 in 1986, to 19 in 2007, to 21 in 2008 and to 22 in 2013 and 2014. The Collegiate Division was dropped for the 2015 event but the 16-17 age division was increased to include 18 year olds.
Good sportsmanship, rather than winning as the ultimate goal, is of utmost importance at Little People’s. Poor sportsmanship among players or their parents is not tolerated. In honor of sportsmanship, awards are given annually to the boy and girl displaying this trait during the tournament.
Family togetherness is one of the focuses of the tournament, so one of the highlights is the annual Family Celebration Picnic held on Monday night following the official practice rounds. Several PGA and LPGA professionals have been a part of this event, including D.A. Weibring, Dicky Pride, Jerry Haas, Marilynn Smith and Libby Pancake. In 2010, Sarah Brown, a former Little People’s player, and her caddie/coach/father Keith, attended the tournament and both spoke at the Picnic. Britt Pavelonis, who won his 3-5 age Division at the first Little People’s in 1974, attended the 2016 tournament, talking with players and parents, and giving a short speech at the clinic. In 2019, the Picnic was co-sponsored by Refreshment Services Pepsi, Hy-Vee of Quincy, WGEM and the Quincy Herald Whig, and was attended by players, families, friends,
sponsors and volunteers.
Another family affair is the Applebee’s Parent-Child tournament, annually held on the Sunday prior to the start of the tournament (Father’s Day) each year. Some 60 teams compete in this event each year, which is the official ‘kick off’ to Little People’s Golf Week. Trophies go to the top three places in six divisions (three for boys and three for girls) and are awarded at the Monday night Picnic. An Alumni-Child division has been added in recent years, along with the Applebee’s Driving Contest, Applebee’s Putting Contest and Applebee’s Best Dressed Contest. Applebee’s also conducts a Closest to the Pin contest on the 9th hole at Westview during Monday’s practice round.
For many years, the International Team Events were played on Thursday, rounding out Little People’s Week. These events were dropped after rain washed out the second day of competition in 2015, and the golf course was deemed unplayable for several days.
The Pepsi Little People’s Golf Championships officially starts on Monday, with official practice rounds, followed by competition at all courses on Tuesday and Wednesday. The tournament annually draws hundreds of players from all over the World to compete in Quincy. A record 922 players entered in 2000.
There are seven age divisions for boys and seven for girls in Pepsi Little People’s (3-5, 6-7, 8-9, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15, and 16-18).
In 2020, the 3-5 boys and girls will play five par-3 holes daily at the Knights of Columbus Par-3 in Quincy, with the 6-7 boys and girls playing all nine par-3 holes daily. Competition for ALL players aged 8 through 18 will take place at Westview Golf Course in Quincy. The 8-9 boys and girls will play nine shortened holes, the 10-11 groups will play 18 holes from the forward tees, and all other divisions will play 18 regulation holes daily.
Numerous PGA and LPGA Tour players made their golfing debuts in Pepsi Little People’s. Most noted are Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland, winner of the 2011 US Open, the 2012 and 2014 PGA Championships and 2014 British Open, who played as a 12 and 13-year old, and Zach Johnson, the 2007 Masters Champion and 2015 British Open winner, who played in Little People’s in 1992 and 1993.
Ben Curtis, winner of the 2003 British Open and 2006 Booz Allen Classic, and Todd Hamilton, winner of the 2004 Honda Classic and 2004 British Open, also started their golfing careers in Quincy. Peter Uihlein, a member of the victorious 2009 U.S. Walker Cup team, winner of the 2010 U.S. Amateur and 2013 European Rookie of the Year, won his 12-13 division at Little People’s in 2003. Other notables include Jordan Niebrugge, a member of the 2013 Walker Cup team and winner of the 2013 US Amateur Public Links, Wisconsin State Amateur and Western Amateur, and low amateur and Silver Medal winner in the 2015 British Open, Jerry Smith, who played in the first Little People’s in 1974 and won the 2015 Encompass Championship on the Champions Tour, Luke Guthrie, D.A. Points, Chris Smith, Ty Tryon, Amanda Blumenhurst, Ginger Howard, Vicki Goetze-Ackerman, Alena Sharp, and Kelly Robbins.
Many more Little People’s alumni are now involved in golf in some way, including Jerry Haas, Emlyn Aubrey, Don Walsworth, Dicky Price, Nicky Goetze, Nicole Hage, Megan McChrystal, Beth Bauer, Pearl Sinn, Michelle McGann, Laura Myerscough, Jenny Lidback, LaRee Sugg, Renee Heiken, Penny Hammel, Susie Pager Redmon, Kristal Parker- Gregory, Adele Moore, Allison Sellers, Patti Ehrhart, Meredith Ward and Val Brennan, just to mention a few. Several former contestants have won Compaq Scholastic Awards and been named Rolex winners by the AJGA. Many are Sagarin ranked players.
Each year, many International players come to Quincy to compete in Little People’s. Over the past 46 years, some 36 foreign countries have been represented, with many winning their division.
Pepsi Little People’s has been a part of the AJGA Tour’s ranked tournament program since 1987, and is now included in the AJGA Performance Based Entry system for boys/girls 14-18 and 12-13 age divisions. The 14-18 and 12-13 age divisions are eligible for AJGA performance stars. It is a ranked tournament for the Junior Golf Scoreboard for boys and girls 10-18, and GolfWeek/Sagarin Junior Rankings, and is a qualifier for the IMG Academy Junior World Golf Championships, the Future Collegians World Tour, and Future Champions Golf. Division winners also receive an invitation to play in one of the PLAY Junior Golf Tour events in Canada. Little People’s is also a ranked event for the Global Junior Golf Rankings.
Trophies and medals are awarded to the top finishers in all divisions, with non-trophy winners in each of the youngest three divisions receiving a participant award. Prior to 2008, scholarships in the amount of $400 for the winner and $200 for the runnerup, were awarded in each division.
Because of USGA and NCAA regulations, that program was cancelled, and a Little People’s Scholarship Program has been initiated to help bring players to Little People’s based on family financial need.
Each year, the Little People’s entry form asks for a letter from contestants stating their golf history, academic and athletic interests, and family involvement in sports. The letters that are written by the contestants are passed on to the sports editor at the Quincy Herald Whig, and from these the two Best Letters are determined. The awards are presented to the winners at the Picnic on Monday night.
A testimony to the popularity of Pepsi Little People’s, in addition to the number of players it draws each
year, is the fact that at least half of the entries each year are returning players. Some return for one to three years or more, while others play as long as they can.
In 1995, Mike Suhre of Edwardsville, IL, now a golf professional, became the first player to compete in 15 consecutive Little People’s. He was followed in 1997 by two Quincyans, Jason Traeder and Todd Rodemich, and in 2004 by Tyler Dickens of Quincy. Griffin Steer competed in his 15th consecutive Little People’s in 2016, and set a new record of 16 consecutive events when he competed in 2017 as an 18-year-old.
It is not unusual to have several players from the same family. There are many ‘threesomes’ and ‘foursomes’, and for several years, Rick Castellucci arrived with his five daughters, all playing in the tournament.
Given that the players in the 14-15 division that first year are now over 50, it is not surprising that there are many players whose parents competed in Little People’s. Most notable of these families are the Akers sisters, Libby and Kelli, who both played during the early years. All four of Libby and her husband Tony Pancake’s children have played in Little People’s, as have the three children of Kelli and her husband Patrick Matthews. Mike Suhre, the first player to compete in 15 consecutive Little People’s events, brought his two boys, Drew and Ryan, to Little People’s in 2012, and returned in 2014 with his boys and daughter. Brad Zeitner, who competed in the first four Little People’s, brings his son Bennett to compete.
In 2018, at least 10 former Little People’s players attended the tournament with a son, daughter or niece. .
In keeping with its mission of helping young people, three other programs are also under the tournament’s “Kids Helping Kids” umbrella. They include the Tri-State Junior Golf Tour, which runs six to 10 one-day events in the Illinois-Iowa-Missouri area each summer for kids who need more experience in tournament play; the Little People’s Scholarship Programs, which offers scholarships to young players based on family need and a complete profile including civic activities, and Little People’s Charitable Program, in which part of the proceeds from the tournament go to local and national charitable organizations involving young people. New in 2019 was the Maureen J. Garrity Scholarship for Women, established in honor of long-time volunteer Maureen Garrity to help support the education of young women playing in the Pepsi Little People’s. First-time winners were Abby Marting of Dubuque, IA, and Ali Schrock of Pontiac, IL. The Scholarship will again be available in 2020.
The primary recipient of the charitable program is now Transitions of Western Illinois, which provides special services for emotionally and physically challenged young people and families. For many years, Little People’s donated money and scholarships to The First Tee of Great River, which disbanded in 2012. Since its inception, Pepsi Little People’s has donated more than $290,000 to charitable organizations and scholarships through its “Kids Helping Kids” program.
As with any event of this size, volunteers help to make the tournament possible. Some 200 men and women donate their time and support to the tournament, some of them working on projects throughout the year, while others focus on helping during Pepsi Little People’s Golf Week.
In 2001, a Volunteer-of-the-Year Award was established to honor the Little People’s volunteer(s) making the most contributions to the success of the tournament. The first award went to the Kroeger family, Vicki, Julie, Katrina and Brian, and the trophy was appropriately named the Kroeger Trophy. At that time, the four Kroegers had devoted a cumulative 56 years of volunteer work towards the tournament. In 2016, the winner was Teresa Huner, who literally brought Little People’s into the Social Media world and continues to work on its Facebook and Twitter pages. Maureen Garrity won the coveted award in 2017, while Mike and Tracy Lawrence received the award in 2018 and Judy Wilper and Mary Griffith won in 2019.
New in 2011 was the John Howerton “Spirit of Giving” Award, created in memory of long-time Little People’s volunteer John Howerton. Claire Hodges of Wildwood, MO, was the first winner. Winners of the Spirit Award in 2012 were Maggie Ambrose and Zachary Hoskins. Tripp Kinney won in 2013 and Hannah Berman in 2014. There was no recipient in 2015, Alex Heard was the winner in 2016, and Jack Hilgenberg was in 2019.
Little People’s has been the recipient of several awards and much publicity in past years. In 1995, Nan received the LPGA/Budget Service Award at a banquet in New York. The award, which included a $5000 donation to Little People’s, made by Budget Rent-a-Car and the Ladies Professional Golf Association, is awarded to the person who has made outstanding contributions to junior golf.
In May of 1997, Nan received the Golf Digest Junior Development Award for an individual, and the tournament was honored by Golf Digest Magazine. Topsy Siderowf, GD Associate Editor, attended the 1997 event and presented the award at the Picnic.
“Throughout the past 46 years, Little People’s has seen some 24,000 players and more than twice as many parents and families,” says Ryan. “Each has become special to us, and we are thrilled to read about each of our alumni in the media today, doing whatever it is they love to do.”
“Little People’s got off to a great start in 1974,” continues Nan. “A combination of enthusiastic people with good ideas, strong community support, and plain good luck, has made it successful throughout the years. It looks like Little People’s is here to stay. We’ve had a lot of good bounces.”