WALES – A Marine Corps color guard stood at attention as the wails of a bagpipe drifted across the putting green at The Legend at Brandybrook. Golf color commentator David Feherty thankfully slapped the back of a veteran with a prosthetic leg while PGA Tour winner Mark Wilson leaned on a cart to chat with a fellow participant.
Such was the scene in Wales on Monday during the second annual Heroes For Kids charity outing, which was presented by the Wisconsin PGA and featured touring professionals with state ties, including Wilson, Jerry Kelly, Skip Kendall and JP Hayes. It was a relaxed, public event designed to raise money for a handful of charities, including The First Tee of Milwaukee County and several groups designed to support veterans and their families.
Last year the event raised nearly $230,000 in total donations – which included cash donations and the funding of several scholarships – and this year cash giving was up at least 15 percent.
The idea for the event was initially conceived to drum up corporate support for the return of the PGA Tour to Milwaukee, but this year several of the tour pro's felt the focus shifted – and rightfully so – to a more charitable angle.
"I started playing junior golf when I was a little kid and I certainly want to give back to all the kids here, too, and also having the Wounded Warriors involved is really inspiring," said Wilson, a Menomonee Falls native who won the Humana Challenge in January.
"It made us very proud about our country and with the Olympics going on right now I think everybody's thinking about country. It's nice to be an American and it's another reminder (here). It reminds us a lot that we have lots of people to be thankful for (and) that we have the freedom we do."
Kelly, a Madison native and a three-time winner on Tour, took it a step further, saying a greater good could be accomplished by keeping the event separate from an official touring golf body.
"I always wanted to be involved with the pro-am and I always knew that the military was going to be my main beneficiary," he said. "We always love The First Tee as well because it does institute the core values much more than golf. It's more about the values, how you treat people, how you see yourself, it's building blocks for making great men and women. And it's nice to get golf into Wisconsin to a point where it's back to charitable giving."
As he spoke, the famously fiery 45-year-old only became more impassioned about the future direction of the event and its true mission. Kelly's charity of choice for years has been the Naval Special Warfare Foundation and has visited American armed forces in Iraq.
"This is not for profit," Kelly stressed. "This is about charity in Wisconsin. Starting to open it up to the public now. We can grow this thing into who knows what, but we're not worried about getting a PGA Tour event or even a senior tour event. That costs a lot of money in rights fees. We can still get sponsorship here, we can get public support here. We can have people come out and watch. We can grow this thing with the players. There's no limit to the amount of giving that we can do through this event. That is what I'm about, much more than getting an event in Wisconsin on TV.
"We've got great majors but how much of that goes to local charities? I don't know. We may be able to top that as this thing grows. That is what we're talking about, being able to generate more charitable money to local charities than a major coming to a state – that's my kind of goal. That's the ultimate goal. Without the rights fees we'd have to pay the PGA Tour and some of the other folks out there, we can do that. That's the main focus."
It's a sentiment that seems to be growing, although the Wisconsin PGA said no definitive plan has been made regarding the event's end goal. Some of the outing's biggest supporters want it to eventually grow into a full-fledged PGA Tour event, while others echo Kelly's vision.
"Overall I think the event went well – most of the things we could improve on, we did," said WPGA Executive Director Joe Stadler.
"It was great. I got some really good feedback from the players – it was fun, it was beautiful, course was great. (Now) it's matter of getting the people to sit down and agree on a direction moving forward so everybody is working for the same goal, and that's not always easy, because everybody has a little bit of their own opinion of what the event should evolve into. That's probably the most difficult part."
What is certain is that the outing will continue to be supported by many of Milwaukee's heavy corporate hitters, as well as a variety of media and sports personalities that love professional golf and its value to the community and charitable giving.
"It's a great thing what the Wisconsin PGA has put together and certainly without having a tour stop here, it's a great day and we're helping a lot of people," Kendall said.
Stadler said he's already received emails and text messages with RSVP's for 2013, including one from Feherty, who entertained guests until after midnight following dinner on Sunday night and throughout the day Monday with no appearance fee.
"This isn't about a leisure activity, this isn't discretionary spending," Kelly said. "This is something that you can look good in a downturn sponsoring golf because all it is, is charitable giving. Everybody here that signed up is here to give. Corporations have to stop making it feel like boy, we're going to look bad for sponsoring a golf tournament. Are you kidding me? This is the time when people need it the most. Why wouldn't this be the time when you want to be involved in a golf tournament and show people this is about charitable giving in Wisconsin? That's what we're trying to make this tournament do, is be the number one giver."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.