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Making the turn: Bruce Summerhays sets golf aside to serve as mission president

Florida has always held a special place in the heart of Bruce Summerhays.

Particularly Tampa, Fla.

It was there at the Tampa Bay TPC Golf Club that Summerhays qualified for the Senior PGA Tour in 1994, launching an unlikely, yet hugely successful 16-year career playing with many of golf's legends.

Now, as he concludes his career on what is now called the Champions Tour, Summerhays will be spending the next three years as president of the Florida Tampa Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"We've prepared for a mission, we were called and we're really excited about it," said Summerhays, who will serve with his wife, Carolyn.

Summerhays, who won three tournaments in his career, recently played his final two tournaments as a member of the Champions Tour. He competed at the PGA Senior Championship near Denver, with most of his eight children and 33 grandchildren on hand to cheer his every shot. After making the cut and playing so well, he decided at the last moment to play the following week at Des Moines, Iowa, where he received a standing ovation at the 18th green on the final day.

But golf is now in the rear-view mirror.

The Summerhayses will begin their full-time duties on June 28. While they're excited, they're also a little nervous. Being in charge of 150 missionaries is a bit intimidating because neither Bruce nor Carolyn has served a mission before.

Their original plan was to serve a two-year proselyting mission after Bruce turned 65. Their stake president reminded them on more than one occasion that, like other senior missionaries, they had a say in the kind of mission they wanted to serve, be it proselyting or humanitarian, and for how long.

But the Summerhayses kept insisting they wanted to leave it up to the Lord.

Summerhays jokes that the only thing they didn't want was a call to serve over a mission. He knew exactly what that entailed because his younger brother Lynn has been serving as a mission president in Tallahassee, Fla., since 2007, and Carolyn's brother Bruce Merrell had been president of the Utah Provo Mission.

In January, Bruce and Carolyn were called as proselyting missionaries to Ireland with a departure date in late May. They were thrilled about the assignment, but less than a month later they got a phone call from Elder David A. Bednar saying they were being considered as a mission president couple. A week later, they were asked to preside over the Florida Tampa Mission.

The Ireland Dublin Mission had been consolidated with the Scotland Edinburgh Mission, which causes Summerhays to joke about the reason for the change in assignment.

"I think the Lord took another look at that and said, 'A golfer? Hmm, I'm not going to send him over to Scotland. In fact, I'll even re-up him for another year."'

Bruce laughs and makes it clear that he and his wife are not at all unhappy about their calling to preside over a mission. "Inadequate" would be the more accurate word.

"I think everyone feels inadequate, whether it's a bishop or a Primary teacher," he said. "I remember when I was first called to be a gospel doctrine teacher and how I felt. You never aspire to anything like (mission president) because you feel so inadequate. At the same time, when the call comes, you know where it comes from."

Summerhays is the first to acknowledge he may not be your typical mission president, most of whom have served as bishops or stake presidents or both. He has been neither, although he served in a couple of bishoprics when he was younger and living in California. Summerhays has mostly worked with the Young Men organization and Boy Scouts, as well as being an early-morning seminary instructor. He is currently a gospel doctrine teacher in his Farmington, Utah, ward.

However, Bruce and Carolyn were comforted by the assurances of Elder Bednar, who told them, "You'll do very well."

"He was clear that they don't want (all mission presidents) to be the same and told us there's a reason you've been called," Summerhays said. "Who knows what it is?"

Summerhays believes his experience traveling the country on the Champions Tour will help in his new assignment, even though he wasn't able to attend church on a regular basis with all tournaments played on Sundays.

"We've got a lot of experience out traveling on the tour," he said. "We've dealt with a lot of mission presidents and done a lot of firesides. Also President (Gordon B.) Hinckley (with his emphasis on temple-building) saw to it that we could attend the temple all the time because there are temples everywhere."

Carolyn Summerhays says she and her husband were able to attend the temple on nearly a weekly basis.

Even though he grew up in Salt Lake and his father was a member, Summerhays didn't grow up in the church. His mother was never a member and his father wasn't active (although he became active and went to the temple at age 86, four years before he died).

Summerhays grew up in Sugar House, a block from the Parleys Stake Center where he used to participate in church athletics. That, along with his association with several good friends, kept him close to the church. He says those friends were a strong influence in his teenage years, along with Carolyn, his high school sweetheart.

Summerhays was baptized at age 17. Younger brothers Gary and Lynn joined the church within a couple of years.

Bruce and Carolyn were married while he was attending the University of Utah. After he turned professional, he had a chance to play on the PGA Tour. However, deciding that wasn't best for a young growing family, Summerhays settled on a career as club professional.

He worked in northern California for several years before moving to Utah in the early 1980s to be the head pro at Wasatch Mountain State Park Golf Course in Midway, Utah.

When they lived in Heber, Utah the Summerhayses were active in their ward with various callings. But once Bruce joined the Senior Tour in 1994, it became difficult to attend church on a weekly basis. He played between 30 and 40 tournaments per year for more than a decade, with tournaments always ending on Sundays.

Carolyn says the last 16 years were "different for us," because they couldn't be involved in their home ward and were limited in their Sunday attendance.

"When he went on tour, we made a commitment to take the sacrament every week and we never missed," she said.

So how can a guy who loves golf so much and has been so successful at it for a half century step away from the game for three years? Or will he?

"I think my answer is this: Golf has been a huge part of my life and there will be people that want to play with me," Summerhays said. "If it fits and I can use it as a tool to bring people into the church I'll use it as a tool. I don't know how that's going to be."

He said it's possible he could play nine holes on a preparation day with an elder who might need some one-on-one time. Or perhaps he might play with someone learning about the church.

"There's all kinds of ways that maybe I'll be able to use it," he said. "But if not, I won't miss it."

While calling his 16 years on the Champions Tour a "grand adventure," Summerhays believes the best is yet to come.

"This is going to be better," he says. "Golf is in the rear-view mirror, so far back we can't even see it, because we're so focused on what we need to do in the Florida Tampa Mission."

e-mail: sor@desnews.com