PALM BEACH GARDENS, FLORIDA | Golfers know the signs of an impending squall.
There’s the blanket of murky gray sky slowly surrounding you, followed by a brief period where the temperature rapidly drops. For some reason it always seems to work out that the wind will come to an eerie halt before nervously shifting to announce the thick sheets of rain in tow.
When the heavy drops rush in and pelt the course, the golfer’s soul is entrenched deeply in two emotions.
The first is the frustration of a round suspended by unplayable conditions, a palpable anger as puddles begin to form on fairways. But because we are golfers, it also means we become amateur meteorologists with eternal optimism. Interrupted golf, even if we are in the midst of a poor performance, suddenly makes us yearn for the remainder of a round. The sudden absence of something we love alters our perspective in a way we didn’t realize was possible a short time ago. And so we convince ourselves the storm will end, and when it does, everything we have missed about the game will be recaptured.
That spirit of redemption manifested itself in a deeply profound way on Tuesday when 117 golfers gathered at Old Marsh Golf Club for the Bahamas Strong Pro-Am. They each came with hope that they could provide relief for a country that continues to deal with the catastrophic effects from Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 monster that mercilessly stalled over the archipelago for several days in early September. There have been 61 people confirmed dead and more than 70,000 Bahamians left homeless, according to the latest reports.
True to the heart of golfers everywhere, several key figures in the game began brainstorming rescue fund ideas before Dorian had even finished devastating the Bahamas. Justin Leonard and his wife, Amanda, who own property in the Bahamas and have a close connection to the region, watched the coverage of the storm from their home in Colorado.
“We kind of thought, ‘Hey, we need to write a check,’ ” Leonard said while standing on the back patio at Old Marsh. “But then we said, ‘Wait a second, let’s be patient and see if there is something beyond that that we can do.’
“We quickly realized there are a lot of things that are going to need to happen. People are going to want to give to this. They are going to want to get involved. Let’s host a golf tournament.”
That came in the form of a star-studded pro-am that Leonard put together with the help of Brad Faxon and PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh, among a plethora of other contributors. No matter how many people helped, it took a miraculous set of circumstances for this event to exist. Lest we forget, Dorian’s track was once forecasted to make landfall not far from Old Marsh and the homes of countless tour professionals in South Florida. The hurricane came perilously close to doing so, but turned north after striking the Bahamas.
Once it was determined that a golf tournament in Florida would be the best way to raise money, Leonard and the other organizers came up against more issues. Namely, to attract big names they needed the event to happen prior to the PGA and LPGA tours starting their respective Asian swings on Oct. 17. It left extremely little time to figure out the details of an event – where it would be held and who would play in it – that would typically take more than a year to properly plan.
But here it was, a little more than a month removed from Dorian.
“I thought the biggest hurdle would be getting pros, because we were literally asking them four weeks out,” Leonard said. “It was a little slow going at first, but all of a sudden Justin Thomas said yes and then Greg Norman said yes, and it kind of snowballed from there.
“It was really cool because even someone like Morgan Pressel, she couldn’t be here today, but she was making phone calls for us to get people. It’s so cool to see people pull together like that.”
The tournament has raised $1.4 million and counting – including all $1,300 in tips that the Old Marsh caddies donated – for the Abaco Rescue Fund.
The demand to play in the event became so high that recent PGA Tour winner Adam Long couldn’t get a spot.
From Leonard’s vantage point looking out over Nos. 9 and 18 at Old Marsh, you could spot Bahamian flags whipping on each of the greens. A food truck from Els for Autism parked in between them. The many professionals who came to play – Thomas, Norman, Jack Nicklaus, Ernie Els, Jessica Korda, Marina Alex and a host of other notable tour pros – signed several flags for auction and offered whatever additional help they could provide beyond money. At one point, Billy Horschel explained to Faxon’s wife, Dory, how he had put together two garbage bags full of golf shirts he wanted to donate. He was far from the only one to offer materials.
Bahamian flags were spray-painted onto the driving range and the country’s national anthem was the only one played prior to the first official shot being hit. Thomas, Faxon and Leonard all wore shoes displaying the flags as well. Baker’s Bay, a Bahamas golf course well known as a vacation destination for many top players, had general manager Peter Whalen and director of golf Cody Shining participate in the event. Even the minor details such as the tee markers – coconuts painted in the colors of the Bahamian flag – were expertly executed.
The tournament has raised $1.4 million and counting – including all $1,300 in tips that the Old Marsh caddies donated – for the Abaco Rescue Fund. But what came as something of a surprise to those around the event was seeing Leonard and Faxon running the pro-am like any head professional would coordinate a member-guest.
When a large tent had to be put up to guard the tee gifts against rain, Faxon did the grunt work. By lunchtime, he had spoken to perhaps every person on the property. At one point, Leonard walked hurriedly through the clubhouse holding an iPad as he wrote an e-mail to Nicklaus’ agent. They certainly had help, but both were the event’s true organizers.
“My head is spinning from how many people I’ve talked to,” Faxon said.
It could be assumed that relief efforts would be limited to just this day, but both Leonard and Faxon feel more strongly than that. This is not a one-off event, Leonard said.
“We’re not done, because the need is going to be there for years,” Leonard said. “We’re hoping to keep this momentum going. It may not be a golf tournament (next time). It may be some kind of a concert. We’re going to see where it goes.”
Golfers know that every storm ends. Eventually the course reopens and everything that makes the game what it is opens alongside it. There is an everlasting hope that the Bahamas will recover, and when it does, the soul of golf will be a part of it.
If you would like to donate to the Abaco Rescue Fund, please visit bahamasstrongproam.com.
Justin Leonard was one of the driving forces behind the Bahamas Strong Pro-Am. Photo: Steve Dykes, Getty Images
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