Event benefitting world-renowned children’s hospital a chance to change lives while putting the sport in the public eye
Author Maya Angelou once said that “when we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.”
While she may not have been speaking of sports, the sentiment certainly applies to the Professional Disc Golf Association’s newfound partnership with St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
The fruits of this alliance’s labor will be on display at this weekend’s inaugural St. Jude Disc Golf Charity Invitational, a PDGA-sanctioned XA-Tier event taking place Saturday and Sunday at the picturesque Bayonet and Black Horse Golf Course in Seaside, California.
The tournament is the culmination of a year-long process that has seen the PDGA and the disc golf community as a whole raise more than $150,000 for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, a Memphis, Tennessee-based organization that helps children and their families battle cancer and other childhood diseases while vowing that no patient ever goes home with a bill.
‘A natural fit’
The partnership between disc golf’s governing body and a world-renowned charity was first established in the middle of 2014, when Annabelle Udo-O’Malley, now a senior regional event specialist for St. Jude’s Pacific Coast Region office in San Francisco, needed an idea to pitch at her hiring interview.
After talking with her husband John, an all-around Frisbee player who has competed in multiple World Championship freestyle events, Annabelle proposed the idea of a professional disc golf tournament as her first main event for St. Jude. Upon being hired, she was given the green light and was planning within a matter of weeks.
A couple calls and connections later, and she was meeting with PDGA Executive Director Brian Graham – who happened to be searching for a charity to partner with the PDGA – at last year’s World Championships in Portland, Oregon.
“Everything was on this interesting little power grid,” Udo-O’Malley said. “It was all very serendipitous, and everything from the very beginning last May or June has been this incredible journey of my meeting some of the best disc golfers in the country, in the world. Paul McBeth, Catrina Allen – all these guys started becoming the cast of characters in this play, and it’s been a really wonderful production.”
For Graham, banding together with the charity was an easy match.
“St. Jude’s obviously got a worldwide brand recognition, and of course the charity that it supports – which is taking care of sick kids at no charge to the kids – who can argue with that?” he said. “It just seemed like a natural fit, something the people in our sport could really get behind, and we just thought it would be a good partnership.”
•Two temporary courses – both named to honor disc golf pioneers and reflect the sport’s history – will be erected at the Bayonet Golf Course.
The “Steady” Ed Headrick Course will be used for the Open Men, Open Women, and Pro Masters divisions. Named after the PDGA’s founder, the par-63 course was designed by Discmania CEO Jussi Meresmaa and clocks in at 10,686 feet in length.
The Dr. Stancil Johnson Course pays homage to PDGA #9, a Hall of Fame member who has written books and taught classes about the sport. Planned by a team of Central Coast designers, including DeLaveaga’s Tom Schot, the course will be used for amateurs and age-protected divisions.
•Three-time PDGA World Champion Paul McBeth is the current individual fundraising leader for the event, contributing more than $20,000 to St. Jude Children’s Hospital.
‘A unique challenge’
Like any new joint venture, though, the union of the PDGA and one of the world’s largest charities has not been without its challenges.
According to Udo-O’Malley, one of the event’s first hurdles to jump was finding a suitable venue to host the tournament. Once the idea of holding it on a high-end golf course was proposed, finding said course proved to be an arduous task.
“We went through six or seven golf courses here in Northern California,” Udo-O’Malley said. “Most of them, if not all, said ‘No, no, no. We don’t want disc golfers here.'”
Once she and her event committee received the support and cooperation of the Bayonet and Black Horse staff, the focus shifted to convincing St. Jude that it was a worthwhile opportunity.
“It was really, really tough, first of all, to sell the idea to a golf course. It was even harder to sell it to the people out in Memphis at St. Jude,” Udo-O’Malley said. “They thought it was going to be a picnic in the park, and, ‘Oh, that’s great! You guys are going to throw Frisbees around!’ But I think the right people, again at the right time, realized the potential of what this is going to be like and it’s just evolved naturally.”
Much of that realization came in February, when the event committee – and in particular PDGA Hall of Fame member “Crazy” John Brooks – seized the attention of St. Jude executives at a conference at the hospital.
“He (Brooks) actually approached the CEO at St. Jude, which nobody does,” Udo-O’Malley said. “We ended up just getting a chance to have him meet our committee, even just briefly – we have this great picture, and it’ll be in our caddy book, of us with the CEO – and it brought us to a different level.”
Even with the support of the organization’s higher-ups, there was plenty of work left to be done for the PDGA.
“We’re an unproven entity for St. Jude, and they have a legal team that protects their brand, as they should,” Graham said. “So we’ve had to jump through a lot of hoops we’ve never had to jump through before in terms of getting things reviewed and approved by the St. Jude legal team.”
“To see the look on their faces when they were throwing discs into the basket, just having the best time…You could kind of tell the effect it had on all the players and all the people from the conference.”
— PDGA Executive Director Brian Graham
For touring professional Dana Vicich, who is part of the tournament’s event committee as a peer-to-peer fundraising co-chair, the extra work was a bit of an adjustment from how disc golfers are accustomed to operating.
“We’re used to going to a disc golf company and saying, ‘I’ve got this event, here’s my stamp, I want to make these for my tournament,’ and just going over to city hall and filling out some paperwork,” Vicich said. “Where this has been an unbelievable amount of work.”
The additional effort was something that Graham did not mind, though, as building a partnership was more important to the PDGA.
“We’re not quite used to that level of scrutiny and review, but we knew it was going to be worth it in the end,” he said. “So it’s not been a problem; it’s been a unique challenge we’ve had to overcome.”
And the work put in now will only make next year’s event run that much more smoothly, Vicich said.
“We’ll have all of our experiences that we’ve gone through and learned from this year, and we’ll be able to move forward next year and have that already be in place,” he said. “It’s going to be so much easier.”
‘It’s definitely life-changing’
While the PDGA and the tournament’s event committee has been committed to the task at hand from day one, that February trip to the hospital in Memphis had an impact beyond changing the minds of St. Jude officials.
For touring professional Will Schusterick, it made the cause that much more real.
“I didn’t really know that much about St. Jude before I went there,” he said. “They took us on the tour, and we talked to a lot of people about what they do and how much it takes to run the hospital. And it’s actually pretty insane the amount of stuff that happens – how large the facilities are, how many kids are in the hospital, and how much fundraising they do to help the kids that are at the hospital; how no kid at the hospital actually pays for anything at all, nobody goes home with a bill, nobody gets a bill in the mail. It’s definitely life-changing.”
Graham pointed to a disc golf demonstration that players held for patients as a turning point for the committee.
“To see the look on their (patients’) faces when they were throwing discs into the basket, just having the best time – and that was the highlight of their day because some of them can hardly get out of bed and they are so weak going through the treatments – you could kind of tell the effect it had on all the players and all the people from the conference,” Graham said. “It was very heartwarming and made us feel really, really good about what we were doing.”
And as the event takes place this weekend and planning begins anew for next year’s tournament, Graham said that this is a chance to showcase the sport.
“We know this is a very unique opportunity for us to show the outside world what disc golf is really made of,” he said. “What we want to do moving forward in year two is encourage tournament directors around the world – and we sanction over 2,200 events – to encourage them to use St. Jude as the recipient of any charitable events they run. So I foresee next year a network of …events that benefit St. Jude. It’ll be an opportunity for the world to take notice that, ‘Hey, look what disc golf is doing.'”
And according to Vicich, what disc golf is doing is putting others first.
“For me, I’m not even thinking about all the good that this can bring to disc golf and all the doors it can open. For me, first and foremost, is raising money for St. Jude and for the kids,” he said. “Any good that comes of it for myself, the players, disc golf as a whole – that’s all a bonus.
“There’s much more important things in life than promoting disc golf and bringing it to the next level,” he continued. “We’ve got a chance to actually help kids and help these sick kids’ families as well.”
Connect with the St. Jude Disc Golf Charity Invitational to learn more about the courses and to contribute to the event’s fundraising efforts:
Steve Hill is a Southern California-based disc golfer who doesn’t throw very far. Follow him on Twitter @NoodleArmDG.