The full extent of the storm was still unknown, but as images from the devastated Bahamas began to emerge early last month Brad Faxon, Justin Leonard and PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh started formulating a plan.
Actually, it was less of a plan than it was a general concept with a clear underlying theme to help the islands that had been ravaged by Hurricane Dorian and its maximum sustained winds of 184 mph. The trio knew they wanted to help, they just weren’t sure how.
“We were looking at kind of the first text message between Fax and Seth and myself, and it was basically I think we can pull together 10 to 12 groups? Did we have time to pull together an auction that would be worth doing?” Leonard recalled on Wednesday.
A few days after those initial text messages the idea of the Bahamas Strong Pro-Am was born, with lofty expectations.
“When Faxon put on an email our goal was $1 million, I thought that’s a great goal but let’s put something on that’s more attainable,” Leonard said.
On Tuesday, Faxon, Leonard and Waugh co-hosted the pro-am at Old Marsh Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., with 24 groups – a professional lineup that included Jack Nicklaus, Justin Thomas and Ernie Els – and an auction that raised $1.4 million and counting.
“Beyond belief,” Faxon said.
Nearly every week in PGA Tour circles there’s a pro-am or charity event and each has an admirable mission to help others, but Tuesday’s outing was different. Leonard and Faxon went from “hoping” to get 10 or 12 teams to having an embarrassment of riches that included an alternate in Tour winner Adam Long.
“We didn’t even ask him. His agent called and said he was in town and wanted to help,” Leonard said. “You don’t have people asking to play in a pro-am. Everybody wants to do something and be involved.”
More than most other sports, golf is adept at helping those in need and certainly the need in the Bahamas is great – but this went beyond the normal philanthropic tenets of the game. Many of the players associated with Tuesday’s event live in South Florida and have spent time in the Bahamas vacationing and playing golf.
“This part of Florida is so close to the Bahamas and Dorian was so close and could have done to the U.S. what it did to the Bahamas,” Leonard said. “A huge group of the people who were there experience the island in some way. Collectively everybody loves the spirit of the islands.”
It all added up to something more than your run-of-the-mill pro-am and that was immediately obvious.
Faxon explained that the club provided players with caddies as part of the pro-am and groups were encouraged to tip their looper, but before the auction began, Old Marsh’s caddie master donated the caddie’s tips for the day ($1,300). “We thought that was one of the coolest things,” he said.
Much of the support came from within the golf community, like a $15,000 donation from Els, but the giving wasn’t limited to either South Florida or Tour circles. “[New England quarterback] Tom Brady messaged how excited he was and that he was going to donate,” Faxon said.
The highlight of the day was the auction that included an emotional speech by an employee of Baker’s Bay who endured the storm on Great Guana Cay. Leonard and Faxon explained that nearly every auction item exceed expectations, like a depiction of the islands using Bahamian coins that they hoped would auction for $15,000. It went for $150,000.
“Absolutely shocked,” Leonard admitted. “To come away with what we did is a great reminder that there are people who believe in helping others. It just reinforces the thought that if you’re doing something good there are people that will help you along the way.”
But the best part of the auction, for both the charity and those in attendance, was a Ryder Cup VIP experience. The package included four tickets to next year’s matches at Whistling Straits, hotel rooms and travel to and from the course, along with signed flags from next year’s captains, Padraig Harrington and Steve Stricker.
The item also included a replica golf shirt worn during the Sunday singles matches by the 1999 U.S. Ryder Cup team which Leonard donned and mimicked his celebration following his cup-clinching putt on the 17th hole at Brookline. “That’s the first time I’ve done that with the shirt on from that day,” Leonard said with a laugh.
Each year in June, Faxon teams with Billy Andrade to co-host the CVS Health Charity Classic and the event has become one of the most popular charity outings in the game, but Tuesday’s pro-am was different and both Faxon and Leonard agreed this week’s event is just the start.
What that means in the long-term remains to be seen but in the short-term Faxon and Leonard were encouraged that donations were still flowing into the charity’s website (BahamasStrongproam.com). The donations need to continue because the need continues.
“People who have been over there said it was going to be years to recover and there will be needs we can’t even foresee now," Leonard said. "This is just the start of what we will do."