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Next week's celebrity golf skills contest has a serious purpose. Its organizers aim to raise $20,000 to fund research on stroke and cardiovascular disease.

But the Strokes Against Stroke and Cardiovascular Disease event is anything but serious, says volunteer coordinator Susan Toder. It's meant to be social, fun and a little bit rowdy.

"You are allowed to heckle your favorite golfers," she said in an interview. "It's not one of those things where you just have to give a polite little golf clap."

The evening will feature three competitive events for 22 golfers who have raised $500 each to compete. They include Todd Reed of KECI TV-13, University of Montana vice president Barbara Hollmann, UM professor and researcher Doug Coffin, physicians Newton Coutinho, Ward DeWitt, Sars Doherty, Henry Gary and George Roth and others.

The golfers will compete in a long drive contest for distance, a putting contest and a 150-yard closest-to-the-pin competition. For the closest-to-the-pin contest, organizers have purchased $20,000 worth of insurance. If a golfer makes a hole-in-one, the golfer and the American Heart Association split the money.

"So we're hoping someone gets a hole-in-one," Toder said.

The event also includes a door prize for everyone attending. Raffle prizes include golf bags, day raft trips and a sight-seeing flight over Glacier National Park. Ticket prices include one raffle ticket, and more will be available for purchase at the event.

"We have all kinds of wonderful things that people can pick up for very little money," Toder said.

This is the third annual Strokes Against Stroke event. It came to Missoula in 1999 when Jabet Wheeler, regional director for northwest Montana for the Heart Association, and the board borrowed the idea from an event in Coeur d'Alene. It took the place of the Heart Association's Valentine's Day heart gala, which had become too expensive.

The Heart Association looks for events that raise the most money with the least expense, Wheeler said. Its three major fund-raising events each year are Strokes Against Stroke, Jump Rope for Heart and the Heart Walk.

"Every milestone that we make on the local level impacts how many more new scientists we can fund," Wheeler said.

Seventy-five percent of the money raised by the events stays in Montana and goes to fellowships and research grants to young scientists who are working on doctorates or are doing post-doctoral research. This year's fellowships went to Taren Grass, a University of Montana doctoral student from Box Elder who's investigating the growth of new blood vessels after the heart has been damaged and to post-doctoral chemist Pakamas Tongcharoensirikul, who is studying one important way in which stroke can cause brain damage. Both are working in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences.

The two two-year fellowships total $104,000. They also help position the young scientist for National Institutes of Health grants.

"The whole basis of the Heart Association is to encourage these beginning investigators," Wheeler said. "It's a progression."

Since 1990, the Heart Association has funded UM research with $545,956. Money also comes back to Montana from the national level as national investigator grants. UM biological sciences professor and researcher Michael Minnick received a $300,000 national investigator grant in 1998.

"The bottom line is we're probably getting back at least three times more than we raise in this county," Wheeler said.

The Heart Association may have been thought of in years past as a "warm, fuzzy" organization, Wheeler said. But its purpose is serious and its fund-raising aggressive.

"My business is to pay for research," she said.

That purpose will be behind Strokes Against Stroke, but come prepared to be light-hearted, said Toder.

"It really is a good charity," she said. "Most of the money stays in Montana. And you don't just give money. You have fun, too."

Fund-raising event

Strokes Against Stroke and Cardiovascular Disease, a fund-raising golf skills contest, will be held by the Montana Neuroscience Institute Foundation to benefit the American Heart Association on Wednesday, May 23, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. at the University of Montana Golf Course. The Celtic Dragon Pipe Band will perform. Tickets are $20, which includes food, soft drinks, beer and wine and one raffle ticket. For tickets, call Mary Cole at 523-4235 or Susan Toder at 728-3640, or buy them at the door. Twenty-two celebrity golfers are signed up to compete; late-comers are welcome, with a sponsorship fee of $500.

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