"This was the most impactful event I've ever had the privilege of attending."
That was the way actor Craig T. Nelson described a little-known tournament and gala dinner he participated in on Monday in Owasso, Oklahoma, just north of Tulsa. It wasn't televised (at least not live). There was no red carpet, or Entertainment Tonight cameras; no paparazzi or "Who are you wearing?" questions.
And while Owasso is not where you would expect a group of celebrities and tour players to spend Memorial Day, especially after some had played in the Crown Plaza Invitational at Colonial and others had endured the stress of the Senior PGA Championship, men like Rickie Fowler, Ben Crane, Hunter Mahan, Bob Tway, Bo Van Pelt, Gary Woodland, Scott Verplank, Craig Stadler, Tom Lehman, Peter Jacobsen, and Cory Pavin along with celebrities like Nelson, Vince Gill and the members of the country music group Rascal Flatts trekked out to the southwest hills of Oklahoma for what all agreed was the most impactful charity event of the year.
Of course, "celebrities attend fundraiser" isn't exactly earth-shattering news, just as "golf played on Memorial Day" is about as shocking as the sun rising in the east. But this event was different in a number of ways. Not only were none of the tour players, musicians or television personalities paid for their time, most actually donated money to the cause. All said they wanted to attend again, with many asking to be placed on "lifer" status as permanent fixtures to this tournament and its mission.
The event was the Patriot Cup, the brainchild of former F-16 fighter pilot and PGA golf professional Maj. Dan Rooney, the founder of the Folds of Honor Foundation and creator of Patriot Golf Day. Donors were paired with tour players and celebrities. Rounding out the foursomes were American heroes: active duty and retired military personnel, many of whom were wounded in battle. The forecaddie for each group was a Folds of Honor recipient, one of the 2,600 dependent children of killed or wounded service personnel who have been helped through the foundation.
"As a former F-16 fighter pilot and PGA golf professional, and having spent so much time in combat as part of the 1% that protect the 99%, I saw this as an opportunity to use our game as an instrument to help get the message out that freedom is not free," Rooney told me after getting all his celebrity friends on planes back home after the tournament. "If you look at the American Memorial Day holiday, it has been relegated to the opening of the pool, a day off from work, going to the lake and having a barbecue. Those things are great things, but people need to stop and think about what Memorial Day means. Golf, and in particular this event, is a great way of doing that."
In its third year, The Patriot Cup has gained momentum with each playing. David Feherty was there with his camera crew shooting for his show (an episode that will air the week of July 4). The tournament itself will air several times on The Golf Channel during November, surrounding Veterans Day.
"Sadly, a lot of people can't tell you what month Veteran's Day is celebrated," Rooney said. "Maybe events like this will help change that.
“The Patriot Cup is about getting together to celebrate God, country and the game we love. And we do that without apology. I wanted to create an experience and an atmosphere so that when people thought about Memorial Day, there was no place they would rather be than Owasso, Oklahoma playing golf as a patriot."
It would have been easy for guys like Lehman, Pavin, Stadler, Brad Faxon, Loren Roberts and Bob Tway to send their apologies. After all, they had just spent a grueling week playing the oldest senior major, the Senior PGA Championship in Michigan.
Signing scorecards on Sunday, hopping planes to Tulsa and spending all day Monday entertaining amateurs for free would not top most of our Memorial Day wish lists. But not only did those players do it, they considered it an honor.
"It's a pretty humbling experience being able to give back like this," Bo Van Pelt said. "It's an honor and a privilege to be a part of it."
PGA of America president Allen Wronowski and CEO Joe Steranka also made the trip to Tulsa after eight days of dawn-til-dusk duties at the PGA Senior. But they didn't go to be recognized: they went in service to those who serve.
"You would be hard pressed to go anywhere and find people who were as excited about celebrating our freedom and honoring the expense it took to earn it," Rooney said. "It's great to see the impact our game can have and the message we can send out through events like this."
Golf and golfers can give back in ways no other sport can. Just look at things like the Troops First Foundation, created by David Feherty, and Harmon's Heroes, the charity established by Butch Harmon in support of our wounded warriors. And look at the daily efforts of golf pros at places like Paradise Point Golf Course at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina where wounded Marines use golf to help in their recovery therapy, and the Fort Benning Golf Course in Georgia where Rangers can relax between deployments.
Rooney's Folds of Honor Foundation hopes to support 1,000 more dependents with the funds raised this year. But it is only a fraction of those he would like to help. There are an estimated 1 million dependents of servicemen who were either killed or wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Eighty-five percent of those do not qualify for Federal assistance.
"It is my mission to call to action the majority of Americans who understand and celebrate what this country is about, Rooney said. "We'll keep marching along every day, doing what we can to take care of the spouses and kids of those fallen heroes. It is the least we can do."
Indeed, it is.