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Thursday, April 13, 2023

An Unlikely Journey


An Unlikely Journey

SNGA Executive Director Ann Sunstrum is now a golf hall of famer despite not playing the game

Story by Brian Hurlburt


Ann Sunstrum’s golf journey began in unlikely fashion at least twice. Personally, she married golf professional John Sunstrum. Professionally, she was hired by legendary PGA Tour Las Vegas Invitational Tournament Director Charlie Baron in the early 1980s.

Despite such major life moments so closely tied to the game, Sunstrum, some four decades later, still doesn’t play the game nor has she ever!

BUT, her impact on Southern Nevada golf runs deep and the Southern Nevada Golf Association executive director is still making a difference. This golf journey added up to her becoming one of the unlikeliest Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame inductees in history when she was included as part of the class of 2022. She was enshrined into the Hall with Dale Hahn, Bob Coffin, Jeremy Anderson, and Dave Johnson during an October ceremony at TPC Summerlin.

The Night of Induction was a full circle moment for Sunstrum because the event kicked off PGA Tour week in Las Vegas and the Shriners Children’s Open, which is the latest rendition of the tournament Baron hired her for in 1984.

“At the time, the PGA Tour event was only a year old here in town, and I got word that they were looking for somebody to do public relations,” Sunstrum remembers. “That is how I kind of fell into it. I met with Charlie Baron, who was the new tournament director at the time, and he said, ‘You were the bat girl for USC?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And he goes, ‘You're hired.’”

And the rest is Las Vegas golf history.

Other stops for Sunstrum along her golf journey included operating a successful golf-related advertising agency and overseeing golf marketing and more for Randy Black of Black Gaming in Mesquite. Under Sunstrum’s watch, the tiny gaming burg evolved into an international golf destination. Also among her accomplishments was creating the Golf Mesquite Nevada golf co-op group and helping to attract The Golf Channel’s Big Break television show. These entities and events brought millions of eyeballs to Mesquite and attracted golfers from everywhere.

“To me, that was like winning the Masters,” she says of attracting The Big Break. “We had a 13-week series on The Golf Channel. Before that, when I would go to golf shows, people would see Mesquite in our area and say ‘Mesquite, Texas?’ I would have to explain it to them that it was Mesquite, Nevada. But after the show aired, they knew. It definitely helped spread the Mesquite name everywhere.”

Eric Dutt, a longtime friend, business associate, and fellow 2008 Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame inductee, has worked with Sunstrum in a variety of ways ever since her days with the PGA Tour event. “I'm thrilled she went into the Las Vegas Golf Hall of Fame because she is very deserving,” he says. “A statement I can make about Ann is that she has always done more than her job and I think that's what somebody who goes into the Hall of Fame should be doing. Business wise, she helped evolve Mesquite into a top golf destination prior to helping the Southern Nevada Golf Association reach new levels of success. She has done a little bit of everything. In Mesquite, she created a national golf destination where she aggregated multiple golf courses and hotel properties to promote together. It was a big operation doing over 35,000 rounds annually.”

Now as the leader of the SNGA, Sunstrum has helped increase the membership to more than 16,000 in addition to streamlining operations following a time in the organization’s history when there were multiple issues. Sunstrum has also helped the Women’s Southern Nevada Golf Association and is a volunteer for the Southern Nevada Junior Golf Association, in addition to helping lead the Nevada State Golf Association.

“We have accomplished some wonderful things at the Southern Nevada Golf Association over the last several years, and it is an honor to be the executive director and work with so many wonderful volunteers and a board led by Kenny Ebalo, plus get to know so many the golfers in the community,” she says. “Also, we have a terrific staff with Tim Brand, our assistant executive director; Kat Marks, manager of competitions and USGA services; Mary-Beth Schwarz, manager, member services; and Renee Rocco, who oversees the SNJGA. We are all pulling in the same direction, and it is very rewarding to see the growth and the improvements in so many areas. With how golf is booming, it is also fun to be a part of that."

SNGA President Kenny Ebalo, the 2014 Championship Division Player of the Year, has witnessed firsthand how Sunstrum has made a difference in amateur golf at the local, regional, and state levels. “For someone who doesn't play golf, I don’t know if there is anybody who is more passionate about golf and especially golf in Las Vegas and Nevada,” Ebalo says. “She’s an expert on so many levels. Among her strengths are marketing and relationships with golf courses, golf professionals and anybody else in town that deals with golf. People come to her for advice because she has the pulse of Southern Nevada golf, and not just from the amateur side, but all sides.”

Hubby Sunstrum knew quickly that his new bride at the time would probably never become the world’s greatest golfer, but he did quickly come to understand how she could help elevate those around her. “For our honeymoon in Hawaii, I bought her a really nice set of golf clubs and I had been giving her golf lessons and helping her with her swing,” he says. “We went out and she hits her first tee shot about 20 feet. I think she was a little nervous and then she hit her next shot another 20 feet. To make a long story short, she never finished the round. I knew at that point that she would never get inducted into the Hall of Fame as a player and she hasn't touched a golf club since. But over the years, I have seen how everybody comes before Ann, and you don't find people like that too often,” he adds. “I am very lucky. I kind of take it for granted, but after being with her for 36 years I every much appreciate it.”

Mesquite’s Black also understands Sunstrum’s accomplishments and what she meant to his company and Mesquite. And Southern Nevada, for that matter. “I don't know of any male or female who has done more for golf in Las Vegas and in our community than she has,” Black says. “She is simply a wonderful person and very hardworking. And it is definitely a hole-in-one with Ann and her hall of fame induction.”

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