Wiedmer: Porky's Open allows UTC athletics to grow, thrive

Wiedmer: Porky's Open allows UTC athletics to grow, thrive

May 11th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

University of Tennessee at Chattanooga golf coach Colette Murray was about to begin showing the school's athletic boosters the proper way to hit a dimpled white ball over Council Fire's demanding layout.

But before the annual Porky's Open began Tuesday, she wanted to express how much the 12-year-old fundraising event has helped her fledgling program, as well as the rest of the UTC athletic department.

"Oh, it means loads," said Murray, the Dumfries, Scotland, native who started the women's golf program from scratch four years ago. "These contributions go straight to scholarships. There's no way we could do the things we've done without this event."

What Murray has done with more than a little help from departing seniors Emma de Groot and Christine Wolf is nothing short of spectacular.

Murray's Mocs have won the last two Southern Conference titles, reached the 2009 NCAA finals and recorded the highest grade point average of any UTC athletic team during the 2010 fall semester.

Not that the Porky's Open itself is much less spectacular. Before the first ball was struck by its100-plus golfers Tuesday, the event had totaled more than $1 million for its dozen years of service. That's an average of about $85,000 a year for athletic scholarships.

Or as UTC athletic director Rick Hart noted, "That's 20 percent of our entire unrestricted giving budget. The Chattanooga Mocs Club is our primary fundraising avenue for unrestricted giving, and they raise roughly $400,000 a year for scholarships. To have 20 percent of that come from one event is unheard of. That's what makes the Porky's Open so unique and special. It surpasses anything I've ever been around or heard about at this level."

That was the sole goal of longtime UTC supporter Frank Kinser when he began the event in 2000. Back then the winner won a basket full of fresh tomatoes and the runner-up got a slightly smaller bucket of cantaloupes.

But the school received around $50,000 for its scholarship fund, and the Porky's Open was here to stay.

"Frank knows everybody's name and makes everyone feel welcome," said women's tennis coach Jeff Clark. "And this event gets better every year. Just to see all these folks come out every year to support UTC athletics is tremendously encouraging."

The last four years have certainly encouraged Wolf, a native of Austria. Despite being ranked among the NCAA's top 100 golfers, she'll forgo a possible professional career to earn her MBA degree next year at UTC.

"I've loved it here," she said. "Wherever you go, people are so friendly. When you come to something like this [Porky's Open], you see how many people support what you do. I just hope they all know how much we appreciate it."

Though every men's and women's sport benefits from the success of the Porky's Open, few athletes probably appreciate its gifts more than de Groot, the Australian native who'll try her hand at LPGA Qualifying School in July with Murray serving as her caddie.

"I played in it my first year and it's just wonderful to see how much it's grown in just that short amount of time," said de Groot, who followed up her SoCon freshman of the year honor in 2008 by being named the league's player of the year this spring.

"We were nothing when we started. Now we're Southern Conference champs."

It is an amazing story, the program Murray has built in just four years. But on some level it could never have been possible without the scholarship dollars raised by the Porky's Open.

"Without something like that, I probably wouldn't have been able to come over here," de Groot said. "There's no telling where my golf game would be right now, but I know I wouldn't have been able to play here."

And without players such as de Groot, too many of UTC's athletic teams would be right where UTC women's golf was four years ago - they would be nothing.