By Bob Denney, PGA.com
ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Vince Gill said he had found it difficult to accept the fact that he was about to receive The PGA of America's highest honor, the PGA Distinguished Service Award, Wednesday night at The Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.
The honorees that had stepped before him have included the late Bob Hope, former presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, along with golfers Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
Though the country music star has carried a love of the game since he was a toddler and has given back to the game in innumerable ways, he didn't believe that, at age 46, he was worthy of the praise.
"It's kind of hard to even fathom it, in all honesty," Gill said in a news conference following the ceremony, attended by some 800 guests and featured performances by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra and the Greater Rochester Community Gospel Choir. "The truth is that my love for golf is as passionate as my love for music, but music is where I make a living. So anytime something comes from music, I understand that, but this comes because I love the game of golf."
A native of Norman, Okla., Gill founded the Vinny Pro-Celebrity Golf Invitational in 1993, which has results in more than $3 million funds to the Tennessee Golf Foundation.
"I started just probably over 20 years ago in pro-ams," Gill said. "I was the perfect guy to do pro-ams because I could sing a few songs and maybe people would come out. We had no idea that our golf tournament would do what it's done. We've had 10,000 people in the galleries when this first went on and everybody was in shock. The whole idea was born out of me just wanting to have a good time and inviting my buddies for some golf."
In addition to supporting more than 60 charitable organizations or causes listed on his web site, Gill is a spontaneous giver to whomever may ask his help.
"I can't believe that he can continue to just give, give and give," said his sister, Gina, of Oklahoma City, who did not attend the ceremony "I don't know where the man gets the energy."
Gill has also been involved with The First Tee program and helped develop the Golf House Tennessee in Franklin, Tenn., which allows many children to get their first experience in the sport. Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, visited Gill several years ago in Nashville during what was a two-part visit. The Bushes were celebrating their wedding anniversary and paying tribute to Gill, a friend who has enhanced The First Tee program in Tennessee.
"That was a most special day for all of us in Tennessee," recalled Tennessee Executive Director Dick Horton. "As far as Tennessee junior golf is concerned, he is our guardian angel."
Gill said his mission to help juniors is one of the most satisfying things in his life.
"If you give a kid at least one opportunity, I'll bet on him every time," said Gill during his acceptance speech, in which he also honored his father, the late Judge J. Stanley Gill, who started his playing career in the cotton pastures of rural Oklahoma, and his mother, Jerene, who was credited for her vital role in developing a love for the game.
"In the 18 years I spent at home, I didn't get to play with my old man so much," Gill said. "But, my mom was always there. I can remember playing often 54 holes a day and as the sun went down, I could see the headlights coming down the road. I knew it was my momma's car coming to get me."
The PGA Distinguished Service Award, first bestowed upon Herb Graffis in 1988, commemorates notable golfers who have the integrity, sportsmanship, leadership, humanitarianism and enthusiasm to better the game. Jokingly, Gill said he qualified for the award in four of the five categories making light of his occasional fits of anger on the course. Despite the self-deprecation, Gill has done wonders for the game he started at the age of seven.
"I'd throw clubs and cuss," he said. "But, I got to credit my wife, Amy (Grant), for helping me in that area. Until I had played a round of golf with her, nobody had said a positive word to me about the emotion of anger.
"I had snapped a 3-wood and apologized to her after that happened. She said it was 'interesting how I was so moved by what I was doing on the course.' I began to turn things around and settle down a bit." Gill closed the evening with some thoughts of renewal in his game plan.
"I appreciate this award and am grateful," said Gill, with a well-timed pause. "But, I'm going to work on my game and be coming back to win the Wanamaker [Trophy]."