Back to NOLA: Golf, Children and Charity

By Mercer BaggsMay 25, 2011, 9:00 pm

NEW ORLEANS – The corridor of lights on Orleans Street leads to redemption. Just a perpendicular stray from Bourbon Street and its sinful temptations there stands a statue of Christ, his arms open to all, a light casting a shadow nearly as tall as St. Louis Cathedral.

Today, when church bells ring in New Orleans, they do so with promise and hope. Maybe that’s just the heart interpreting for the mind, but the sound is different from that of five, six years ago. Then, there was an ominous presence. Then, the ringing was a knell.

New Orleans 2011 is not New Orleans 2006, the last time visited the forlorn city. Many suggest it’s not even New Orleans 2005 or ’04, that this is a better New Orleans – or, at least it one day will be.

“What Katrina did was wipe the slate clean,” said Mike Rodrigue, a fourth generation New Orleanian and former chairman of Fore!Kids Foundation. “It allowed us to address some things that would have taken generations, if ever, to address – our education system, our levee system, public housing. In a 24-hour period we were starting with a blank piece of paper, basically, and given the chance to not to go back to what we had, but learn from our mistakes and build things better.”

The improvement of life doesn’t readily come to mind when you think of New Orleans, but that’s what many have set out to do. There’s the St. Bernard Project, which has rebuilt 343 homes, to date, in the eponymous parish after Katrina decimated everything tangible. There’s the St. Michael Special School, which serves and educates students with special needs in New Orleans. And there’s Blessings in a Backpack, a program also involving Justin and Kate Rose, which provides weekend nutrition for students in need throughout the country.

All three charitable organizations were highlighted at this year’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans.

That’s the true identity of this PGA Tour event. We see four days of golf, a champion crowned, millions of dollars doled out to those with millions of dollars already in the bank. We see that which is the case with any and all tournaments contested on Tour – another television showcase, one stop of 49 on a yearlong schedule.

Then there is what we don’t see, what lies beneath the surface: charity and children.

When Bubba Watson sank a 3-footer on the second hole of sudden death, the 2011 Zurich Classic of New Orleans was officially over. Onward to Quail Hollow.

But for those who stuck around and those invested in the tournament – the event officials, the charitable organizations, the people of Zurich Financial Services, the people of New Orleans – the totality of the tournament was still to be witnessed.

“In our 52 years, we’ve been able to raise more than $20 million for local children’s charities,” Tommy Fonseca, Zurich Classic of New Orleans tournament director, said prior to the start of the event. “In post-Katrina, we’re about $8.5 million.”

Fonseca has been heading up the annual NOLA stop since after the 2006 event. He’s also president of the aforementioned Fore!Kids Foundation, which produces the tournament and raises money to fund children’s service organizations.

“This tournament is extremely important to this area, with all of the financial assistance that it provides to charities,” Fonseca said. “But, perhaps most importantly, post-Katrina, this event helps us showcase to the world that New Orleans is back.”

That effort began after Katrina struck on Aug. 29, 2005 – as soon as everyone could fully digest what had happened and comprehend what needed to be done.

Just 10 days after the storm wrecked the Gulf Coast region, Rodrigue, then the chairman of the board for Fore!Kids, led a group to PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla. They discussed the possibility of moving the event to the east coast for one year, as the intended host site, TPC Louisiana, was inundated by Katrina – holes left under water for weeks, 3,200 trees gone.

There was a safety net, however. English Turn Golf and Country Club, which hosted the tournament for 16 years, had minimal damage in comparison and was able to fill the void. Meanwhile, Zurich Financial not only stuck by the tournament, but eventually extended its sponsorship agreement through 2014.

“Zurich did an incredible thing,” Rodrigue said just prior to this year’s event. “They really did make a statement. If I was a board member in Switzerland, hosting a golf tournament might not have been atop my priority list.”

Added Fonseca, “With what they did, that allowed us to focus on the details, the small things and not worry about the big things, like finding a title sponsor or a preferred date on the PGA Tour schedule.”

This year’s event nestled in three weeks after the Masters Tournament and two weeks before The Players Championship. It attracted one of its best-ever international fields, including first-time participants Luke Donald, the No. 3 player in the world at the time, and Graeme McDowell, the reigning U.S. Open champion.

The Zurich Classic prides itself on charity, but it doesn’t shy away from spectacle – there was a 120-foot, three-section Bacchus float – the Baccagator – to the right of the 17th tee box, to go along with 27 culinary stands located throughout the TPC Louisiana layout.

“We were really well looked after,” McDowell said during his Wednesday news conference. “I was going to come in here and talk to the media and then go for lunch, but I reminded myself of the 2000 calories I’ve had this morning already.”

“Man, I had an awesome meal last night,' said defending champion Jason Bohn on the eve of the tournament. 'It’s one of my favorite things about coming here. The food is phenomenal.”

Food, music, culture and sports are always on offer in New Orleans, coexisting in harmony. The week of the Zurich Classic, the NBA Hornets were locked in a battle with the Los Angeles Lakers, with a home game Thursday night. Jazz Fest began Friday morning. According to Fonseca, the tournament didn’t have to compete against these or any other events for public attention. In fact, he said, the extra activities helped draw a better field.

“That’s the great things about New Orleans,” Fonseca said, “the more the merrier.”

On April 27, 2006, the Zurich Classic became the first nationally televised sporting event in New Orleans, post-Katrina. The tournament, a fixture on Tour since 1938, featuring winners like Jimmy Demaret, Lloyd Mangrum, Byron Nelson, Billy Casper, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Seve Ballesteros and Tom Watson, was alive – but in peril.

“Right after Katrina hit, the question was: Is New Orleans still a PGA Tour destination? With the loss of infrastructure, the relocation of the playing,” Fonseca said. “One thing you never have to worry about is the resilience, the strength of the people of New Orleans. Our culture and our heritage is something you can’t flood. “

That resiliency has been much needed, not just for the people of New Orleans but for the entire Gulf Coast region. After Katrina, there was Hurricane Gustav. After Gustav, there was the BP oil spill. After the BP oil spill, there was the flooding of the Mississippi River.

You can’t help but wonder what’s next: the Rapture?

Fortunately, the billboard along Highway U.S. 90 citing May 21 as Judgment Day proved inaccurate. New Orleans survived one apocalyptic scene; it could do without another.

Truth is, where New Orleans sits on the map, with nearly half the city below sea level, it’s always in Mother Nature’s crosshairs. But those who choose to live there, those who have stayed there throughout it all, can’t live under scenarios of doom and gloom.

“Our future looks very bright,” Fonseca said. “In 2012, we have the Men's and Women’s Final Four and the BCS National Championship game. We have the Super Bowl in line for 2013. Along with our NBA and NFL teams, we appreciate the synergy and what it will provide to our city – the exposure, the economic aspect, to where we can increase and better fund local projects.”

Fortunately for the New Orleans community, the Zurich Classic is still in existence. Fonseca said the event has more than a $30 million impact annually to area. He added that while many tournaments have seen sales decrease during an ever staggering economy, his event – New Orleans’ event – has increased sales four years running.

“Doing that in this recession that we’ve had for a while, post-Katrina, post-BP oil spill, to continue to increase our sales during that time makes a big statement about what this tournament means to the city,” Fonseca said.

It also says quite a bit about the people of New Orleans.

“We pride ourselves on resiliency,” Fonseca said. “It’s in our DNA.”

Newsmaker of the Year: No. 1, Justin Thomas

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 18, 2017, 1:00 pm

He won a major, captured the FedExCup and was named the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year. It should come as no surprise that Justin Thomas holds the top spot on our Newsmakers list for 2017.

Thomas entered the year ranked outside the top 20, and few might have pegged him for a transcendent campaign. But he kicked off January with a win in Hawaii, added another before leaving the Aloha State and never looked back.

Thomas’ seminal moment came in August when he captured the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow for his breakthrough major title. One month after greeting Jordan Spieth behind the final green at Royal Birkdale, this time it was Thomas’ turn to have friends stick around to snap pictures with the trophy that signaled his arrival among golf’s upper echelon.

Full list of 2017 Newsmakers of the Year

In addition to racking up the hardware – five in total, including the inaugural CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in his first start of the new wraparound season – Thomas dazzled with style. His runaway win at the Sony Open included an opening-round 59, and his third-round 63 at Erin Hills marked the first time anyone had ever shot 9 under on a U.S. Open venue.

Thomas’ consistency was rewarded at East Lake, when a runner-up finish at the Tour Championship netted him the season-long title and $10 million prize. It was in the subsequent press conference where he shared the goals list he had written into his cell phone in February, having ticked off nearly every one. It showed a dedicated attention to detail as well the tactical approach with which Thomas had steered his rapid ascent.

Heading into a new year, he’s now very clearly entrenched as one of the world’s best. And as his career progresses, it’s likely we’ll look back at 2017 as the point where Thomas first transformed great potential into eye-popping results.

Win No. 1: Title defense at the CIMB Classic

Article: Thomas (64) rallies to defend CIMB title

Win Nos. 2 and 3: The Hawaiian double

Article: Thomas refuses to let disastrous hole derail TOC win

Article: Worst week ever ends with another title at Sony Open

Record Round No. 1: 59 at the Sony Open

Article: Thomas becomes youngest player to shoot 59

Take a look: Thomas’ scorecard from his amazing 59

Record Round No. 2: 63 at the U.S. Open

Article: Thomas sets U.S. Open record with 9-under 63

Temporary Slide: Open MC makes it three in a row

Watch: Thomas loses club, makes 9, misses Open cut

Mr. Major (and win No. 4): PGA champ at Quail Hollow

Article: Thomas joins the club – the major club

Win No. 5: Dell Technologies Championship

Article: Thomas wins the battle of buddies over Spieth

The $10 Million Man: FedExCup champ

Biggest Win of All? Player of the Year

And One to Grow On: Wins at CJ Cup in 2017-18 season

Article: Thomas caps torrid 12-month run with CJ Cup win

Photo Galleries: Best of ...

Best of: Justin Thomas and Jillian Wisniewski

Best of: Justin Thomas through the years

Getty Images

Newsmakers of the Year: Top 10 in 2017

By Golf Channel DigitalDecember 18, 2017, 12:30 pm

Cabreras win PNC Father/Son Challenge

By Associated PressDecember 17, 2017, 11:36 pm

ORLANDO, Fla. - Angel Cabrera and Angel Cabrera Jr. closed with a 12-under 60 for a three-shot victory in their debut at the PNC Father/Son Challenge.

The Cabreras opened with a 59 at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club and were challenged briefly by the defending champions, David Duval and Nick Karavites, in the scramble format Sunday. The Argentines went out in 30, and they had a two-shot lead with Cabrera's son came within an inch of chipping in for eagle on the final hole.

They finished at 25-under 199 for a three-shot victory over Duval and Karavites, and Bernhard Langer and Jason Langer. The Langer team won in 2014.

Mark O'Meara and Shaun O'Meara tied for fourth at 21 under with Jerry Pate and Wesley Pate.

Cabrera wasn't even in the field until two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange and his son, Tom Strange, had to withdraw.

Duval and his stepson went out in 28, but the Cabreras regained control by starting the back nine with back-to-back birdies, and then making birdies on the 13th, 14th and 16th. The final birdie allowed them to tie the tournament scoring record.

''This is certain my best week of the year,'' said Cabrera, the 2009 Masters champion and 2007 U.S. Open champion at Oakmont. ''To play alongside all the legends ... as well as playing alongside my son, has been the greatest week of the year.''

The popular event is for players who have won a major championship or The Players Championship. It is a scramble format both days.

In some cases, the major champions lean on the power of their sons for the distance. O'Meara said Saturday that his ''little man'' hit it 58 yards by him on the 18th. And on Sunday, Stewart Cink said son Reagan told him after outdriving him on the opening four holes, ''In this tournament I may be your son, but right now I'm your Daddy!''

Jack Nicklaus played with his grandson, G.T. They closed with a 64 and tied for 15th in the field of 20 teams.

Rose wins; Aphibarnrat earns Masters bid in Indonesia

By Will GrayDecember 17, 2017, 1:59 pm

Justin Rose continued his recent run of dominance in Indonesia, while Kiradech Aphibarnrat snagged a Masters invite with some 72nd-hole dramatics.

Rose cruised to an eight-shot victory at the Indonesian Masters, carding bookend rounds of 10-under 62 that featured a brief run at a 59 during the final round. The Englishman was the highest-ranked player in the field and he led wire-to-wire, with Thailand's Phachara Khongwatmai finishing second.

Rose closes out the year as perhaps the hottest player in the world, with top-10 finishes in each of his final 10 worldwide starts. That stretch includes three victories, as Rose also won the WGC-HSBC Champions and Turkish Airlines Open. He hasn't finished outside the top 10 in a tournament since missing the cut at the PGA Championship.

Meanwhile, it took until the final hole of the final tournament of 2017 for Aphibarnrat to secure a return to the Masters. The Thai entered the week ranked No. 56 in the world, with the top 50 in the year-end world rankings earning invites to Augusta National. Needing an eagle on the 72nd hole, Aphibarnrat got just that to snag solo fifth place.

It means that he is projected to end the year ranked No. 49, while Japan's Yusaku Miyazato - who started the week ranked No. 58 and finished alone in fourth - is projected to finish No. 50. Aphibarnrat finished T-15 in his Masters debut in 2016, while Miyazato will make his first appearance in the spring.

The results in Indonesia mean that American Peter Uihlein and South Africa's Dylan Frittelli are projected to barely miss the year-end, top-50 cutoff. Their options for Masters qualification will include winning a full-point PGA Tour event in early 2018 or cracking the top 50 by the final March 25 cutoff.