I marvel at golf. I’ve been immersed in the game now for almost 80 years, yet every day it surprises me or affects me in some new way. Sometimes it’s a swing tip I’ve never heard before. Occasionally it’s a snippet of the game’s rich history that had previously gone unnoticed or maybe it’s that one remaining golf joke I hadn’t yet heard. But the way in which the game most often surprises me – moves me, really – is its endless capacity for good. From the game’s leading professionals to its highest handicappers, from its administrators to its administrated, it is inspiring, even golf-affirming, to know that while ropes may separate the world’s greatest players from their fans, we’re all united in two key ways: charity and the Rules of Golf.
The PGA Tour’s first recorded donation came in 1938 when the Palm Beach Invitational donated $10,000 from tournament proceeds to charity. From then on the game has been rooted in generosity. I can honestly say that I don’t know of a single person in this sport – leading administrators, top players, rank-and-file competitors, journeymen, media, tournament organizers – who is not directly involved with charity. For 75 years that philanthropy has been stamped into the Tour’s DNA. Ask Tim Finchem, who was presiding as commissioner in 2004 when the Tour passed the $1 billion mark in charitable donations, and has set a goal of reaching the $2 billion mark by 2014. I have no doubt we’ll surpass that.
My family and I have been privileged to play a small role in these efforts. Our tournament at Bay Hill, coming up this week, raises funds for the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, the only hospital in Central Florida built for women and led by women. Helping nurture these institutions was a passion of my late wife, Winnie, and remains a passion and a priority of mine. But I’m no different in that regard from any of my colleagues. From Jack Nicklaus to Gary Player to Lee Trevino to Raymond Floyd to Tom Watson and right on down to the last man on your local mini-tour money list, we’re all in.
You may have heard that Devon Quigley, son of Champions Tour star Dana Quigley, was seriously injured in an automobile accident about a year and a half ago. The resulting medical bills have been astronomical. So Jim Colbert asked me to help with a fundraiser he was putting together in Florida. He told Dana, “I’ll get you some pros.” Jack also showed up. So did Gary and Lee and Raymond and Tom and Ben Crenshaw, Larry Nelson, Nick Price, Steve Elkington, Curtis Strange, Lanny Wadkins, Tom Kite, Dave Stockton, Mark Calcavecchia and Jeff Sluman and many, many more. The outpouring was so overwhelming, in fact, that Hollis Cavner, who runs the 3M Championship on the Champions Tour, had to be brought in to manage the outing, which, of course, he did for free. The golf course, The Floridian, was donated by another golf lover, Jim Crane. And to top it all off, Jack and Barbara hosted a dinner party at their home. Why? Because (as Jack likes to say) golfers, by nature, are a giving bunch.
What amazes me about golf, however, is that the PGA Tour family is just the tip of golf’s charitable spear. Look at the work done every day by golfers in your town, city and state. Charity scrambles, golf-a-thons, cause-related leagues, charity auctions and invitationals abound. Not long ago I read in one of the magazines about a league in Colorado comprised of dozens of local businessmen who compete in monthly tournaments at area golf courses. They play a game they love while raising thousands of dollars every year for local causes. There are thousands of golf groups doing the same thing across this country and around the world every day.
Of course, golf is not unique among sports in supporting charities. The NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL all have vibrant and productive charitable arms, but golf’s philanthropic web is wider, deeper, stronger, more committed and more resilient than any I have seen this side of the Red Cross. Why? Let me answer that with a few questions. Could it have anything to do with the kind of people who take up our sport? Could it have anything to do with the messages of sportsmanship and respect that continue to undergird our game? Could it be that golf – so often passed from fathers to sons and mothers to daughters – makes us all feel like cousins? Could it be a sense of gratitude for a life lived on grass; for one last birdie in the fading light; for the soothing cycle of another cool evening spent chasing down a purple sky? In the end, I guess “why” we give is less important than that we give. I’m just so pleased and proud that we do.
Beyond revealing the golfer’s giving heart, charity is also an indication of our game’s health. It’s a show of pride for and unity in our sport. We need that now more than ever. That brings me to the rules. In my seven-plus decades in this increasingly global game, we’ve had very few actual disagreements. We’re facing another one right now.
With the USGA’s and R&A’s decision to recommend a ban on anchored putting and the consequent opposition from the PGA Tour, the PGA of America, golf equipment manufacturers and some rank-and-file amateurs, the stage has been set for something more ominous. I think we’re facing a serious challenge to the rules that govern the global game. My concern is that the fabric that unites us, the tie that binds you to me and me to Tiger and Tiger to you – one set of rules – will be irreparably torn. If both these ruling bodies proceed with the proposed ban and if the Tour, the PGA of America and eventually the average player in effect ignore it, where does that leave us? Where does that leave a guy like Tim Clark, who has for years legally and successfully anchored his putter? Where does it leave the guy at your club or local muni who’s grown comfortable with what has always been a legally anchored stroke? If they decide to ignore the Rules of Golf, how will the USGA maintain a relevant voice in the United States on other vital issues such as growing the game, slow play, golf course maintenance and their charitable work? Does it leave the U.S. Open and the Open Championship adrift from the other majors? Could the USGA’s other great championships or the Tour’s own events be diminished?
I have enormous respect for the USGA and the R&A. Both have been an important part of my life as both a competitor and a man for well over half a century. Many of the friendships I formed when I was playing in U.S. Amateurs, U.S. Opens and Open Championships in the early part of my career thrive to this day. I’ve worked closely with the USGA on a volunteer basis for the better part of my life. Regardless of how you or I or the Tour feels about it, the USGA is charged (along with the R&A) with the responsibility of writing the rules by which we play. They are the final judges. I think – I know – that they take that responsibility seriously.
I hope that behind the scenes the USGA, the R&A, the PGA Tour and the PGA of America – four of the central golf organizations of my life, all of which do remarkable work growing and promoting the game – can come to some understanding and we continue to have one set of rules for everyone. Like most older players, I want to pass along to my grandkids a game that’s stronger and healthier than the one I inherited. That means a game with the interwoven threads of philanthropy and integrity intact.
On GolfChannel.com, Arnold Palmer periodically shares his opinions about issues affecting golf through his column, “Arnold Palmer’s State of the Game.”