‘Up and Down’ the Iowa Golf Scene – Still going strong
At 88 Years Young, Cleo Brown Remains a Fixture at the Principal Charity Classic, IGA Events
A bedrock on the PGA Champions Tour schedule since 2001, the Principal Charity Classic has experienced a number of changes over its distinguished 23-year history. Title sponsors, venues, growth of purses and rise as a premier sporting event in Des Moines are included on such a list.
But there’s been one constant throughout the tournament’s rich history. Urbandale’s Cleo Brown introduced the first threesome on the number one tee at the 2001 Allianz Championship staged at Glen Oaks Country Club. Twenty-three years later, Brown continues as the tournament’s only opening tee starter, and the personable storyteller has no plans to slow down.
Now at 88 years of age, Brown is a recognized landmark at the Principal Charity Classic.
“I go out there every year and it’s like a class reunion or family reunion,” Brown said. “The players ask me how I’m doing, how’s the family and what I’ve been up to.”
Dan Houston, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer of Principal and a driving force to the tournament’s rise to prominence, has been known to say, “Everybody out there knows Cleo…many of the tour pros walk right by me to say hi to Cleo. He’s the guy that runs the show.”
Principal has been the tournament’s title sponsor since 2007 and during that span, more than $53.7 million has been generated for children’s charities throughout Iowa. In 2016, the PGA Champions Tour named the event as its Tournament of the Year, and it annually generates the second highest resources for charity. The tournament has settled in at the Wakonda Club in Des Moines, host site since 2013.
“The pros love coming to Wakonda,” Brown says. “They are well-treated, the facilities are great, the galleries exceptional and the caddies are taken care of.”
Brown has developed personal relationships with hundreds of PGA Champions Tour players over the years. The game’s top stars all know Brown on a personal level. “The game of golf introduces you to so many great people, and that includes the professionals. Bernhard Langer comes to mind first. He’s such a great guy and a true gentleman.” Each year, a new crop of 50-year-olds gain status on the tour and it doesn’t take long before they all know the venerable first tee starter.
“You’re on the first tee, you get to introduce all the players and it’s the best seat in the house,” he says. “All the players tell stories and share while they are waiting to tee off.” Conversely, there are stars from yesteryear that lose their playing status or retire from competitive golf. They all are significant to Brown. “I’ve introduced players from the past like Chi Chi Rodriquez, Dave Stockton, Ben Crenshaw, Dale Douglass, Bob Murphy, Dr. Gil Morgan, Jim Thorpe and this list goes on.”
Brown has also served the Iowa Golf Association as a starter for many events in Central Iowa over the years, including the State Amateur, State Senior Amateur and the Herman Sani Tournament. In recognition of his extensive service, the IGA named Brown as its 2023 Sean Flanders Volunteer of the Year award recipient.
Longevity and stick-to-itiveness are common attributes for Brown. He retired a mere two years ago after a 64-year career in the abstract and title business. The Harlan, IA native enlisted in the Army right after the Korean War and spent 27 months stationed at Okinawa. After being discharged, he married his high school sweetheart, Katie, and the couple relocated to Des Moines where he went to work for the Independent Abstract Title company and shortly after became the owner. He sold the business more than 30 years later and stayed involved by working for two other local firms.
“You’ve got to have a purpose in life,” he said. “But the shadows were getting shorter and the golf course getting longer so I decided to retire,” he quipped.
Despite a busy work schedule, Brown was introduced to golf in the late 1950’s, playing his first round at Waveland. He caught the bug. He also played the old Army course at Fort Des Moines and Grand View regularly before beginning a 28-year association with Hyperion Field Club. While at Hyperion, he served on the Board of Directors and club president and was instrumental in hiring long-time pro Ross deBuhr and superintendent John Ausen.
He also introduced two sons, Jim and Jon, to the game. Both youngsters took a shine to golf and were regulars at Hyperion during the summer months, wearing the tires out from a Moped as they repeatedly took the six-mile jaunt to the club from their Urbandale home with clubs strapped on their backs. The boys would chip and putt while waiting for junior tee times and developed a fierce competitive instinct. Both would eventually earn golf scholarships to West Texas State University, with Jon developing into a force in Iowa golf, both in the open and senior divisions with 26 titles in IGA or IGA sanctioned tournaments. The Iowa Golf Hall of Famer also won a record 14 Des Moines City Championships.
But as Cleo says, “It was Jim who was the golfer in the family” until his business pursuits as a financial advisor crowded out his playing time.
Among his achievements, Jim Brown claimed a Des Moines junior golf championship, defeating Mike McCoy in the finals. The two would later compete in the same collegiate conference circles, Jim at West Texas State and Mike at Wichita State.
Brown, shown above on the first tee at the Wakonda Club prior to the start of the Principal Charity Classic, has no plans to hang up his first tee microphone. “The Principal Charity Classic has been a big part of the Brown family life,” he said.
“Each year I think this might be it and each year I keep coming back.” He offers the following advice to fellow seniors. “Stay involved, stay active and have a purpose. A good home life makes all the difference – I’ve been married to Katie for 67 years and she’s still my best friend.”
“Up and Down” the Iowa Golf Scene
A regular feature column written by IGA Foundation board member Mark Gambaiana, Up and Down the Iowa Golf Scene is designed to take the reader beyond the headlines and scoreboards to share stories of those who help make Iowa golf so rich and rewarding. Profiles will spotlight those who advance the game through volunteerism, service, extraordinary achievement, competition, human interest and the many other dimensions of golf in Iowa.
Click the links below to read previous Up and Down features
– IGA Rules Official Sean Flanders
– R&A, USGA Champion Gene Elliott
– Nervig Reflects on Decades of Service to The Iowa Masters
– Arseneault Finds Fulfillment in Life’s Next Chapter After Competitive Golf
– Ivan Miller remembers the days of the Minnows
– Kinney adjusts to life on tour
– Standard Golf’s roots run deep
– Pettersen sets sights high
– McCoy, Norton Put Iowa Stamp on Florida Senior Golf
– Moreland Reflects on his Extraordinary Club Pro, Playing Career
– From Sibley to the LPGA Tour – Barb Thomas Whitehead Fulfills Her Dream