New Orleans Event Hits Home for Journeyman

By Associated PressApril 26, 2006, 4:00 pm
2006 Zurich ClassicNEW ORLEANS -- Kelly Gibson used to make fun of his greatest contribution as a golfer.
 
Ten years ago in the Las Vegas Invitational, he was in the lead on the back and poised to capture his first PGA TOUR victory. But he hit into the water on the 16th, three-putted for bogey on the 17th and finished one shot out of a playoff won by a 20-year-old rookie.
 
I delivered Tiger Woods to the world, Gibson said.
 
The room filled with laughter, as it does every time he tells the story.
 
Only now, everyone knows better.
 
The PGA TOUR returns to New Orleans as the first major multiple-day sporting event since Hurricane Katrina, and Gibson is treated like a star.
 
His golf career is going nowhere, except maybe toward retirement. Gibson never came close to winning another PGA TOUR event, and he hasnt had his full tour card since 2000. He is playing the Zurich Classic on a sponsors exemption.
 
But he is celebrated as the player who had only a little and gave all he had in the aftermath of Katrina, feeding relief workers and eventually starting a foundation to support the cause.
 
Its like I won a major or something, Gibson said. Ive been stopped 80 times in the locker room, guys saying, Great job, weve been following you on The Golf Channel, some of the stories that they had on you in sporting magazines. ... Its an unusual experience for a guy that has never won a tournament.
 
Gibsons career never turned out the way he hoped.
 
His best year on tour was in 1996, when he was 69th on the money list. He has been trying to make do on the Nationwide Tour, frustrated that he still has not conquered golf from inside 100 yards, the money part of anyones game.
 
And now, he wonders if he hasnt been called in another direction.
 
Gibson was born and raised in New Orleans. He lives downtown, and doesnt put more than 2,000 miles on his car each year because he walks just about everywhere he goes. And while he would love to play well at the Zurich Classic'he has never finished in the top 10 in 16 tries'he finds himself being pulled toward helping rebuild his city and looking after the people who cared for so many victims.
 
If a guy gets in a temporary home and his child needs books for school, and we can provide him with a $500 gift card to go to wherever ... something to give back to make their life a little bit easier, then I feel like we accomplished what we intend to do, he said. Its been difficult. Its harder than playing golf, Ill tell you that. And golf is pretty hard.
 
So I dont really know where its taking us, but well figure that out shortly.
 
More than just another stop on the PGA TOUR, the message from the Zurich Classic is about rebuilding.
 
Tournament director John Subers said skyboxes have sold out and about 35,000 people are expected to come out on the weekend, typical numbers for an event that first showed up on the PGA TOUR landscape in 1938.
 
By Sunday, it will be raucous like it is every year, Olin Browne said.
 
On Tuesday, eight women from the PGA TOUR Wives Association went to a flood-damaged neighborhood and spent the day gutting a house that once had water to the ceiling. Some players have taken detours from their hotels on Canal Street to the golf course at English Turn, driving past upper- to middle-income houses that remain vacant. Rotten wood, ruined furniture and appliances and debris are piled for removal in front of some houses.
 
These neighborhoods of beautiful homes and nobody in them, it was a little surreal for me, said defending champion Tim Petrovic, who first toured the area a month ago. You feel a little helpless. This is our week to step up and show what we can do. Were just glad that were here, and were hosting the first major sporting event since the hurricane.
 
Gibson felt like he had no choice.
 
He was in Milwaukee playing a charity event for Skip Kendall when Katrina turned into a Category 5 and bore down on New Orleans. Once he finally got home, he was stunned by the destruction. And he was curious about those on the front lines.
 
Im sitting here watching this and Im like, Whos taking care of the people who are helping the people? Whos going to take care of the police officers, who have lost everything, too? Whos going to take care of the fireman, the guy in the water? Where is the food for them? So it just kind of evolved.
 
He started Feed The Relief, making it up as he went along. He contacted everyone he ever met through his golfing career, asking for their help. Some of the biggest aid came from his peers.
 
I was the one who ordered the food, and you have to pay the caterers, Gibson said. I started reaching out to people that I knew could help. David Toms called immediately. I told him, Im on the hook pretty good.
 
Toms had begun his own relief efforts and sent Gibson a check for $50,000. Before long, Vijay Singh inquired and sent $40,000. The PGA TOUR contributed $50,000 and there has been a steady flow of help'even if some of it was delayed. The week before the Masters, Gibson noticed mail from the PGA TOUR that was postmarked March 1.
 
It was a check from Phil Mickelson for $83,000.
 
For him to give his time, to give his money ... thats what we need, Mickelson said. No one person can do it alone. But he has made a big difference.
 
Gibson, Toms and Hal Sutton were honored three weeks ago by the Golf Writers Association of America with the Charles Bartlett Award, given to those for their unselfish contributions to improve society.
 
It was Gibsons first trip to Augusta, Ga., and probably as close as hell ever get to the Masters. The guy who feels like he won a major has only played six of them, and only made the cut twice.
 
The only thing thats really been bad about my career is that I didnt win on the tour, he said. I dont want to walk away from the game, but I know my game is not where it used to be to compete day in and day out on any level.
 
But weeks like this remind him that his career paid off in ways he never imagined'perhaps more for others than for him. Gibson did not have the celebrity or the resources as others, but he had a desire to help, which was enough.
 
I didnt want to sit back at this moment in my career'in my life'and not do something, Gibson said. I think I owed it to the city of New Orleans.
 
Related Links:
  • Golf Chronicles: After Katrina
  • Full Coverage ' Zurich Classic of New Orleans
     
    Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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