Golf sparks community to rally around injured girl | The Spirit of Golf

Payton Hrncir and John Leavitt
Photo: Creating Memories Photography
Payton Hrncir is battling back with the help of PGA Professional John Leavitt
By John Kim
PGA.com

Series: Spirit of Golf

Published: Friday, November 01, 2013 | 1:40 p.m.
 
Even by Texas standards, John Leavitt leaves a big mark.  
 
Leavitt is, by his own admission, a big man. At six feet tall, he weighted in earlier this summer at a stout 339lbs. Leavitt has, by his own actions, a big heart. But you won't get him to admit that. However, an entire community - and one special young lady - is happy to attest to that for him.
 
Earlier this summer, Leavitt learned that a Payton Hrncir, the daughter of one of the members at his course - Winkler County Country Club, had been involved in a freak ATV accident over the 4th of July weekend. The accident was severe enough to leave the popular and athletic 16-year old paralyzed from the waist down.
 
"I knew I wanted to help," Leavitt recalled, "but I honestly wasn't sure what we could do and how much impact we could have. We had a number of ideas and really had to figure out which ones might be most effective. But we're not a big club (it's a 9-hole facility located between Wink (pop. 1000) and Kermit (pop. 6000)) and our pool of players and members is limited - so you have to be practical in setting your goals."
 
Leavitt established a three-tiered strategy and a pretty optimistic fundraising number to benefit the Hrncir family. Leavitt would 1.) establish a "pledge" fund that would be based on a 90-day diet he would undergo, 2.) host a special tournament on their behalf and 3.) solicit donations through auction items that would be held in conjunction with the tournament.  His goal for all three projects: Raise a combined $40,000.
 
He wasn't sure he could do it, but he was going to give it the ol' Texas try. In other words, he was going to go all out in a big way. But little did he know how big.
 
Leavitt's 90-day diet was ambitious but not unprecedented.  "I've probably lost 2000 lbs over the years," he says. "But I always put it back on and then a little more. That's what 30-day diets often do. This time, I thought with a 90-day plan and the incentive of helping of Payton - this could be something that would benefit both of us."
 
Using a bike-a-thon model he was a part of in junior high - Leavitt was able to get 50 people to pledge various dollar amounts per pound that he lost. He hoped he could lose 30 pounds. His aspirational number was 40 and he even allowed the idea of 50 pounds to enter his mind from time to time.  Upon his final weigh-in on Oct. 21st, he had lost 51 lbs.  
 
Total funds raised = $15,300.
 
READ: Spirit of Golf: Overseas father watches son make ace via skype

For the tournament, Leavitt decided to try to field 20 teams at a cost of $1500 a team. The number of players at that price point seemed a reach, but not out of the question.

 
"For this time of year, the amount of daylight we have, I thought this was pushing it - but I did think if we really went after it, we could get there."
Within two weeks of announcing the tournament, he had 30 teams sold.  
 
"We also sold hole sponsorships and sponsorships of the beverage cart," Leavitt added. "So the tournament was a huge success in every metric. A great time for a great cause. Just like you'd hope."
 
Total funds raised = $50,000.
 
And then the auctions.  
 
Leavitt, while playing in a Northern Texas PGA section event in August, was discussing his diet and goals with a fellow competitor when Mark Harrison, the executive director of the section, happened to overhear.  Harrison offered to donate an item for auction. Leavitt happily accepted. And then, more items from all over Texas started to come in. Leavitt felt like he could hit a significant number with the auction.
 
What he didn't know was that Harrison also contacted John Maginness, host of the Sirus/XM radio show "Maginnes on Tap".  Maginness arranged for Leavitt to appear on his radio program to talk about his mission.  
 
Listeners from all over the country responded.  One fellow pro in Florida offered a one-day golf school for three people for auction. Several courses offered up tee times for a foursome to go up for bid. Representatives of golf companies provided golf bags, clubs, and apparel. 
 
Jon Lester of the world champion Boston Red Sox, donated a game-worn jersey. One listener, driving home from a road trip, was PGA President Ted Bishop.  Bishop sent Leavitt a flag from the 2012 Ryder Cup - signed by the members of the U.S. team.  The PGA of America staff sent a PGA Championship flag signed by champion Jason Dufner. Leavitt knew that he had some special items. 
 
"I thought we could generate another $5000 from these items - maybe $10,000 if things went really well."
 
But just before the auction date, a member suggested to Leavitt that he use a professional auctioneer.  Leavitt was persuaded and there would be an auctioneer for the live auction portion of the night. So the goal posts were moved to raising a few thousand from the silent auction and maybe $10-$15 thousand for the live auction.
 
"Well, the silent auction alone brought in $10,000," Leavitt said with a laugh.  "And the live auction - well, that brought in $88,600."
The items from the auction had raised $98,600.
"At some point, it just got surreal. People knew the value of these incredible items but that didn't matter. Yes, they were getting some great items or opportunities. But the amount they were bidding! We offered up a foursome at TPC Craig Ranch that I hoped would get its retail value (around $800).  We got $3200 out of it. Another tee time, worth $140 for a foursome - with cart - went for $5000. I told the person to double check their bid, they might have added an extra zero. They said 'No, this is what I want to do'."
 
The highest bid on any item was actually for the Ryder Cup flag donated by PGA President Ted Bishop.  The flag sold for $10,500.  
 
"Then, after the lady won the flag, she went over and presented it to Payton as a gift," Leavitt said with amazement.
 
Bishop was soon told of the success of his gesture and the entire project.
 
"John Leavitt is to be commended for his extraordinary efforts in raising phenomenal dollars at his facility to help someone very special in his community," Bishop remarked. "This is what PGA professionals do everyday, every week throughout America. But, John took it to another level and I was happy to play a small part." 
 
"It's not about what I did," Leavitt says. "The entire community came together in a very special way. While Payton was in the hospital, the people went to their house here and completely renovated it to make it accessible and usable for Payton. The community response has really been something to witness. I'm happy I could be a part of a great effort."
 
And the best part. The story is still going.
 
READ: Spirit of Golf: Suzy Whaley's love of golf and family comes full circle

"This past weekend, I got a call from a lady that heard about what we were doing," he said. "She's not from around here, she's never met Payton.  But she donated $15,000.  And then I just got a call yesterday from a lady who wants to make a donation, but she's not sure how much yet because she wants to get a corporate match from her employer."

 
John Leavitt knew what he was getting into when he pledged to help a young lady.  He had no idea how powerful a few kind gestures and ideas could become. 
 
"I wanted to raise $40,000," he laughs. "I wondered if that was the right number. Apparently not."
 
As of this writing, Leavitt's efforts have resulted in close to $200,000 being raised for Payton Hrncir. The money will go into a special fun dedicated to Payton's medical expenses and other needs such as wheelchairs and a handicap-equipped vehicle.
 
 "While we far exceeded our goal, her expenses are ongoing of course," Leavitt adds. "I'd like to see this become an annual event - not just for Payton but for all spinal research as well."
 
Big man indeed. Physically, not as big as he was earlier this summer.  But in a much more important way, as big as they come. Even for Texas.

The Spirit of Golf is a celebration of the most important stories in golf - your stories. Though magical moments are associated with major championships or the Ryder Cup - the very best times are found when playing with family, friends, in helping a greater cause or traveling to a bucket list course. We invite all golfers to read, share and contribute their own great memories as we all work together to enjoy the "Spirit of Golf".  If you have a good story for the "Spirit of Golf" - you can contact John Kim at john.kim@pga.com