Living links legends raise big charity bucks
Posted: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 1:16 pm
By: By TERESA M. WALKER, AP Sports Writer
BRISTOL, Va. (AP) — Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player individually remain big draws. Together they’re a mesmerizing trio on a golf course.
The trio also knows how to harness that star power to raise money.
They combined Tuesday to raise just over $15.1 million at an event titled the “Big 3 for Mountain Mission Kids.” It was the single biggest fundraising day in PGA Tour history and the first public event at the Olde Farm club in Virginia.
The previous mark was estimated to be about $8.5 million by Tour officials. Organizers had hoped to raise at least $12 million for the Mountain Mission School, an 89-year-old school for needy children.
Nicklaus said the three golfers have raised money all over the world, but he had never seen a group as philanthropic as Tuesday.
“To be here today to set an all-time record is very, very special,” Nicklaus said.
The fundraising continued to the very end. As soon as the 19-hole scramble was over, someone paid $6,000 for the gloves worn by the group on the final hole.
“Americans are such tremendous givers,” Player said.
And so were the golfers, playing to the crowd like a links version of the Rat Pack.
Player played emcee and comedian, noting Palmer drove the ball so well in his heyday that Palmer only left the fairway to answer the telephone. Palmer called Player quite a talker, a man with deep pockets and short arms.
“Gary Player is so cheap he wouldn’t give ducks a free drink if he owned Lake Okeechobee,” Palmer said to laughs.
But Player’s stories are priceless, recalling how he met Elvis Presley once and his critique of how new equipment is making golf courses obsolete. And when Player stops briefly, Nicklaus steps in with timing as slick as any straight man.
“I’ve heard them all 100 times,” he said of Player’s stories. “I just turn my hearing aid off.”
But fans couldn’t get enough.
Even Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt was in the gallery, getting an autograph from Player before introducing herself to Nicklaus. She followed the trio around this reclusive course tucked away atop the mountains near the Virginia-Tennessee border even as people asked her for her own autograph.
All three golfers are members at The Olde Farm, an exclusive club carved out of farmland off a quiet country road back in 2000. Privacy and escape are the biggest assets for members like four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champ Jimmie Johnson, the Mannings — Archie and sons Peyton and Eli, South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier and baseball Hall of Famer George Brett.
That membership helped this high-dollar fundraiser dream big to endow the Mountain Mission School in nearby Grundy, Va. Founded in 1921, the school funded only by donation houses and teaches nearly 300 needy children from as young as 18 months to as old as 20.
Main sponsorship came from Johnson & Johnson with support from the PGA Tour and pricey fees for each threesome who got to play one hole apiece Tuesday with the golfing legends, finishing each hole to stop for photos. The 1,500 tickets cost $1,000 apiece. TV cameras also recorded the action for CBS.
A documentary is slotted to air July 10.
The event also featured a silent auction that included NFL jerseys from each of the Mannings in a single display case, a bat signed by Brett, spa getaways, signed footballs from Spurrier and new Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, Johnson’s signed driving gloves from his 2009 title season, a VIP package at a Virginia Tech football game, tickets to Alabama-Tennessee football in October and a signed basketball from Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari.
Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer and former Miami Dolphins owner Wayne Huizenga also came out for the event.
But the biggest attraction? The three legends miked up so fans could hear each quip on free radios handed out at the entrance.
Fans cheered every shot down the middle of the fairway and surged toward Palmer, Nicklaus and Player for autographs and photos between shots even as carts helped Palmer, 80, and Nicklaus, 70, around the course. Player, 74, signed as he walked.
Nikki Bailey, who knew the golfers from her years working for course founder Jim McGlothlin, surprised Palmer with a sign declaring her love for him at the first green.
She ran out and gave him a hug. “I love you too,” Palmer said. Someone started to introduce Bailey to Nicklaus when Palmer noticed.
“Hey, I’m getting jealous,” said Palmer, earning another hug.
The comedy and great shots just kept flowing. Nicklaus was so confident he would roll in a birdie putt that he picked up the coin marking the spot before lining up his 6-footer.
“That’s what you call optimism …,” Player said.
Then Nicklaus holed out the putt.
“Nothing’s changed,” Player said to laughs.