Tuesday, December 20, 2011

These Elves Are Working Every Week

As we close in on the most celebrated Holiday of the Season, I want to tell you a story about two of Santa’s elves who spend nearly every week of the year doing something for needy kids and their families. Golf annually generates over $3.5 billion for charities across the United States. This is a story about two women who have committed a big part of their lives helping other people through golf.
Amy Wilson has served as the President of the PGA TOUR Wives Association (PTWA) for the last five years. Her husband, Mark, won two of the first three PGA TOUR events of the 2011 season. Wilson recorded victories in Hawaii and Phoenix. The 5’8, 150 pound former University of North Carolina golfer went on the win $3.1 million and finished 19th on the 2011 PGA TOUR money list.
Jennifer Stallings is enjoying her rookie status with the PTWA. Her husband, Scott, will most likely be the runner-up to Keegan Bradley for the PGA Tour’s Rookie-of-the-Year. Stallings won the Greenbrier Classic and finished with $1.9 million in earnings and a 41st place spot on the Tour money list.   
The PGA TOUR Wives Association is an organization that was founded in 1988 with the mission of rendering support and assistance to needy children and their families through charitable events.  During many weekly PGA TOUR events, the PTWA will dedicate Wednesday to an initiative that will benefit needy local kids and their families. While their professional golfing husbands are getting ready for the Tour stop, this group of wives is diligently giving back to the local community.
The list of charitable groups that the PTWA has helped is lengthy. PGA TOUR wives have raised money and given time to organizations such as First Tee, Walk the Course against Domestic Violence, Shelters for Battered Women and their Children, various Food Banks around the U.S., Shriners Hospitals and a host of others.
Wilson and Stallings will tell you that every PTWA cause is worthwhile and heartwarming. One effort that touches the voice of these two PGA TOUR wives is Blessings in a Back Pack. Each Friday throughout the year, 6,875 needy children get their backpacks filled with food, courtesy of the PTWA.
These kids are on school lunch programs and when they go home for the weekends, many of their families don’t have food to eat,” said Amy Wilson. “Before Blessings in a Backpack many of these kids skipped school on Friday. They showed up on Monday with upset stomachs because they hadn’t eaten for several days.
“The schools have seen a huge increase in Friday attendance because the kids know they will get their backpacks filled for the weekend. They show up for school on Monday feeling healthy and ready to go,” said Wilson. “The families depend on this and it has been very gratifying.”
Blessings in a Backpack take on a special meaning to the Tour Wives for another reason according to Wilson. “Fridays are cut days for Tour players. What happens on Friday for our families dictates whether our husbands play on the weekends, it affects their ability to earn money and things like FedEx Cup points,” said Wilson. “Even when we have a bad Friday and miss a cut, there is a lot of satisfaction knowing that kids are getting their backpacks filled that same day because of us.”
Jennifer Stallings echoes Wilson’s comments. “This year I learned about many organizations that I hadn’t been exposed to before such as Blessings in a Backpack. Most, if not all of these kids do not have food at home for them on the weekends. This program provides that.
“Trying to narrow down one thing that has been my favorite that the PTWA has done is really tough. We are involved with organizations dealing with women and children. How do you choose a favorite in that?” asked Stallings. “Being from Tennessee, I’ve always wanted to be involved with St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Scott and I had the opportunity to tour the hospital last summer. To see kids run through the hospital in little masks and no hair is almost unbearable, but seeing them laugh and play is something totally different.”
When you look at a typical TOUR week for the players, wives and families it is pretty impressive that this group of wives would find time to help others. Families arrive at the next Tour stop late on Sunday or early Monday. The wives will typically unpack and set things up for the week while the husband plays in the Monday pro-am. Rookies, such as Stallings, are limited in their access during the practice round s.
Tuesdays are full-fledged practice days. Wednesday will vary with the event, but it serves as a day of rest for many players before the tournament begins on Thursday. That being said, the PTWA devote it to their cause leaving some husbands like Mark Wilson babysitting while Amy does her thing with a PTWA project.
“We show up and want to work. We are not afraid to get dirty. We want to leave that PGA Tour stop knowing we helped somebody,” said Wilson. “I could not be as active as I am without Mark’s help. He knows this is important to me and he does his part.”
One of the biggest challenges that come with marrying a PGA TOUR player is the travel. This year Scott and Jennifer Stallings traveled 42 weeks. “This year turned out fantastic for us and I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but that’s a lot of travel. As a wife you can decide to go on the road and support your husband or you can stay home and deal with things there. Our system is that I travel.
“Supporting your husband can be hard, really hard. It seems like all of the guys are different,” said Stallings. “Some want you to motivate them. Others don’t want you to say anything.  Some want you to stand by them. Others want you to go home. Some want you to analyze their swings while others want you to keep your mouth shut.
“Everyone is different. I think it can be really tough to figure out what works best for you and your spouse. I think that is important in any career and marriage though,” concluded Stallings.
It is obvious that the PGA TOUR Wives Association is as much a support group for each other as it is a means to help others. “These are my girls because we live the life together,” says Wilson.
Make no mistake though, these women are driven to help others and they do it with little fanfare. They are the women behind the men. But, they find the time and make the effort to impact the lives of others who are less fortunate. They are Santa’s Elves all year long.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Golf in the White House

Politics never ceases to amaze me. Last week Mitt Romney, Republican challenger for the office of President of the United States, launched a new fundraising site entitled “Fore More Years”. He encourages voters to donate $18- or more- “to send President Obama on a permanent golfing vacation.”
Romney is quick to point out that since 2009 Obama has played 1,584 holes of golf. Translated, this is 88 rounds in the past three years since Obama became the Commander in Chief. That would be 29 rounds of golf per year.  The average round of golf takes four hours, but I would maintain that a Presidential round is like Moses parting the Red Sea when it comes to other players on the course and Obama spends less than 120 hours per year on the golf course.   
“It’s time to have a President whose idea of being hands on doesn’t mean getting a better grip on the golf club,” said Romney. These are interesting comments from a man who is an avid runner. In fact the Romney family conducts a family triathlon- swimming, cycling and running- at their lakeshore vacation home in New Hampshire each summer.
C’mon Mitt! Exercise is good for the body and soul whether it is golf or running.
Starting with William Howard Taft, 15 of the past 18 Presidents have played golf. Records would indicate that Taft played over 400 rounds while serving as President. He is by far the most active presidential golfer. Jimmy Carter would be the most recent exception as a non-golfer. In 2009, Golf Digest reported that John F. Kennedy was the most capable presidential golfer, followed by Dwight Eisenhower who actually had a putting green installed outside the Oval Office.
Eisenhower launched his presidential campaign from inside the grounds of Augusta National Golf Club. Many in his election committee were members at the famed venue which hosts The Masters each year. Eventually, the Eisenhower cabin was built at The National and it served as a frequent retreat for Ike when he was President, much to the dismay of many Augusta National members because of the interruption it caused the club from a security standpoint.
Hours after taking the oath of office, Kennedy was astonished to discover thousands of small cleat marks on the Oval Office’s wooden floor, leading a pockmarked trail from behind the desk to the double doors that opened to the portico, the South Lawn, and Ike’s famous putting green. For weeks afterward, Kennedy would show visitors the trail of spike marks. The old man’s obsession with golf was worse than anyone had thought, Kennedy told friends. Ike had treated the Oval Office as a clubhouse locker room, leaving a duffer’s trail in the floorboards of the most powerful office in the world.
One of Kennedy’s first acts as president was removal of Dwight Eisenhower’s beloved putting green, a bit of White House grounds keeping that was revealed at a press conference. The old golfing president was gone and the new, young president was determined not to play games. Kennedy pledged to the press that the new president would not play golf during working hours. In only a matter of weeks that promise was broken. More on JFK in a minute!
When Richard Nixon was elected in 1968 he was confronted with Ike’s cleat marks in the Oval Office and he immediately asked his staff to replace that portion of the floor.  They carved up the old spike marked floor and distributed many pieces to Eisenhower’s old friends as souvenirs. Some were also given to wealthy Republicans who had opened their checkbooks to put Nixon in the White House.
Nixon always said that golf was Kennedy’s “secret vice”. There is no doubt that Kennedy was a closet golfer. Former PGA of America President Max Elbin often joked that Kennedy was the most unannounced presidential golfer in his long tenure at Burning Tree Club, Washington D.C.’s golfing home for generations of U.S. presidents.
“We never knew when Kennedy would pop in on us. He would drive out in a little car, step out and walk into the clubhouse. Many nights it was around 6 p.m. He would ask which nine had the least amount of people on it. It was not uncommon for him to take a golf cart and start on the 7th hole,” recalled Elbin. “If he would have concentrated on it, he could have shot in the middle 70’s.”
Late in the summer of 1963, Kennedy hired Cecil Stoughton, the White House photographer, to take some 8-milimeter film of him as he played Hyannis Port. The film, broadcast in 2001 on the Golf Channel for the first time, shows the beauty of the President’s full swing off the tee, as well as his putting stroke and smooth chipping stroke. Stoughton’s camera also captured the Kennedy addressing the ball, stroking it, and then watching it, usually with a big smile.
The film was intended for Arnold Palmer, the professional golfer that Kennedy most admired. “He said he wanted to show it to someone like Arnie,” Stoughton said. “It was natural- you only go to the top to get that kind of critique.”
President Kennedy had planned to invite Palmer to the White House late in 1963 to watch the film and help tinker with the mechanics of the presidential swing. The plans were to do it sometime in December after a quick trip to Texas.
Information published in a recent national economic report indicates that golf is a $76 billion industry with a total impact on the U.S. economy of $195 billion. Nationally, the golf industry provides 2 million jobs and total wage income of $61 billion- more than the big three auto makers combined and more than the motion picture industry. Golf is responsible for contributing about $3.5 billion annually to charities across the country, more than any other sport. Eighty percent of golf in the U.S. is played on public courses with an average cost per round of $28.
Maybe Romney should take a mulligan and reconsider his remarks on Obama’s golf. This was another example of an irresponsible and uneducated comment by a politician seeking a way to bash golf- a sport where the players call penalties on themselves. C’mon Mitt……………          

Monday, December 5, 2011

Steve Stricker

On Thanksgiving morning Steve Stricker gathered his wife, Nicki, and their two daughters, Bobbi and Izzi, and headed down the road about an hour south of Madison, WI to Steve's hometown of Edgerton. Many families across America were making similar voyages to see family and friends that same morning. In the case of the Strickers, they were embarking on a very big Thanksgiving Day meal.

"Edgerton is a town of about 4,000 people and this is the second year in a row that my family and I have headed up a community outreach program," said Stricker. "We helped feed 400 people that day. The thing that was really cool was to watch how much my two girls got into it. They were serving and cleaning tables and really enjoying themselves."

Surprised that a star athlete on top of the golf world would spend an important holiday doing charity work with his family? Then you must not know Steve Stricker very well. In fact, the most striking part about Steve Stricker may be how non-striking he is. If you are you looking for controversy, a criminal record, a flashy style or an over inflated ego- then you’re going to have to go elsewhere. There is nothing like that within a long par 5 of Stricker.

I texted him on a couple of occasions as we were hooking up for this story and he responded each time from a deer stand in rural Wisconsin. That is where you will likely find him this time of the year when he is home on his farm near Blancheville. An avid outdoorsman, Steve is as likely to shoot wild game as he is to shoot a low golf score; and he probably enjoys both about the same amount.

"The President's Cup put a little damper on my deer hunting this year," said Stricker. "It is something that Nicki (his wife) and I do together. We bow hunt even during gun season. I try to get her to go more often because she hunted a lot before we got married." 

This is Steve Stricker, one of the best golfers on the planet. In the past three years, Stricker has notched seven PGA Tour victories, won over $14.5 million and reached the number two spot in the World Golf Rankings. Today, Stricker is ranked #8 in the world and he has been among the world's top ten players for 141 consecutive weeks. In 2011, he finished in the top 20 of all four major championships.

But even more, Stricker is the guy who epitomizes his Midwestern roots and core values.  He’s polite, he’s well-mannered and he’s popular with fans, media and other players. He doesn’t take his success for granted and he is appreciative of all that golf has provided.  And his work ethic and determination are amazing, as evidenced by him being the only player to win the PGA Tour Comeback Player of the Year twice. He did it in back to back years. Think about that.

Success on the Tour was not always a given for Stricker. Prior to 2003, Stricker won three times on the PGA Tour in eight years. But, in 2004 he lost his tour card and was faced with going back to qualifying school in 2005. This was a time in his career when Stricker admits he thought his playing career might be over and he entertained the thought of finding another livelihood.

"I just had to go to work and revamp my swing. It took me an entire winter hitting balls out of a modified trailer into the snow. But, with the help of my father-in-law (Dennis Tiziani, PGA pro and former University of Wisconsin golf coach) I was able to shorten my backswing and improve my grip," recalls Stricker.

"The secret for me was making my swing simple enough so I could take ownership of it, particularly in pressure situations. I felt like I had to know my strengths and my weaknesses," said Stricker. "My goal was always to win again. But, I could never have imagined the type of success that I have had in the last six years."

Stricker’s story is a great model for golfers in the northern climates. Winter can be a perfect time for a swing change. "It sure is. You don't have to be playing golf every day," insists Stricker. "The winter is when I do the bulk of my practicing and work on my game."

The results speak for themselves.  But in addition to some great individual accomplishments, Stricker’s new game has given him the opportunity to find success and enjoyment in some of golf's high profile team competitions. He has been a member of four President's Cup teams (4-0), two Ryder Cup teams (1-1) and the Dunhill Cup (1-0). Stricker says those events are stressful for the players, but also lots of fun.

"One of the players at the President's Cup said, 'And we work hard to get on this team. Why'?" laughed Stricker. "I wouldn't change those weeks at all. It's my goal every year to make the Ryder Cup or President's Cup team."

Another hallmark of  Stricker’s participation in these events is his success and enjoyment in his partnership with the most famous golfer in the world. In recent years he has teamed up with Tiger Woods to form a truly formidable team.

"Tiger and I have a good relationship. We are two different people and we have a great amount of mutual respect for each other. I think he feels comfortable around me. We talk a lot about chipping and putting," said Stricker. "I want to be a friend to him. He is a good guy who is misunderstood at times."

Stricker and Woods were paired together in the President's Cup and they spent time as playing partners in last week's Chevron World Challenge at the Sherwood Country Club in California. Stricker can offer an up close perspective of Woods' current form on the course, which appears to be gaining momentum as evidenced by his win last week at the Chevron World Challenge. Woods in fact credited Stricker with a putting tip that has made a huge difference in the last month.

"Tiger is totally getting it back together. He is striking it right down the line and his ball compression is really solid. All he needs to do is see the ball go in the hole more often," said Stricker. "He started out his career making putts. After he went through his off-course problems, he lost confidence and it affected his putting. But, I expect big things from Tiger in 2012."

Stricker’s future should include big things as well – though he admits that overcoming a herniated disc between the C6-7 vertebrae has been a challenge. In fact, for six weeks leading up to the Presidents Cup, Stricker was sidelined from the golf course. He’s even shopped his MRI to four different doctors and is trying all he can to avoid surgery.

"This is the same exact injury that Peyton Manning has. I have actually talked to him a couple of times to see what kind of advice he could give me," confided Stricker. "His healing seems to be going well and I think he will play again. That makes me optimistic about my situation."

Stricker turns 45 years old in February. He played in 19 tournaments this year and thinks he will play 16-17 events in 2012. That said, he still feels like he has a lot of golf left in his tank.

"Each winter I threaten to get away from it. It is a tough balancing act between being a dad and a PGA tour player," says Stricker. "I have had a great run and I still feel very competitive. With what I have been through, I hate to walk away just yet."

That’s a good thing for a player who still has a lot to offer golf, both inside and outside the ropes. But as one of golf’s truly good guys looks ahead to 2012, he still has some unfinished business in 2011.  So, in the meantime, look for the deer population to get thinner near Blancheville.