Brad Gehl was in a hotel somewhere in Brazil when the idea came to him.
He had just missed the cut in a PGA TOUR Latinoamerica event and was feeling “pretty down,” he remembers. Gehl was alone in his room, sipping coffee and listening to music, almost certainly something by Nora Jones, which always reminds him of his lake house in Indiana.
“You know, it is hard playing pro golf and traveling,” Gehl recalls. “It is not easy for as much joy as you get from it. ... So, I do certain things to remind me of home, to kind of root me in the day. And along with that is writing in my notebook.
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“I was just kind of reflecting and just being like, all right, you know what? Golf was tough this week. How are we going to find a win today? Because I try and take it day by day and just make it as good as I can.
“And sometimes when you're in a hotel and you're not playing well, it's tough to find a good light at the end of the tunnel.”
But he did. The Hangry Project, born that September day in 2018, has been that light for Gehl.
He took out his composition notebook, the kind you used to shove in your backpack at school, and he thought about a way to give back. The Oklahoma State graduate wasn’t where he wanted to be, which is playing on the PGA TOUR, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t find a way to help others.
So, Gehl started writing. He doesn’t remember which came first, the name or the logo. But it wasn’t long before he came up with a mission statement for The Hangry Project, which aims to support meaningful play in the skateboard community by keeping the kids safe, fed and happy.
“What meaningful play is, is just in the sense that it's not like you're getting a meal or you're getting a paycheck when you're out skateboarding,” Gehl says. “But it kind of fulfills you in a sense that it could be a creative outlet -- and that's what skateboarding has been to me.”
The words he put on paper didn’t become reality until several months later. Gehl was back home in Jupiter, Florida, for the holidays and he wore a sweatshirt he’d had made with the Hangry Project logo on it to a Christmas party. People were intrigued when Gehl told them his idea.
But the logoed clothing notwithstanding, it was just that, an idea. “A lot of people say I like to run before I walk,” he says with a chuckle.
When Gehl failed to make the Korn Ferry Tour in 2019, he decided to take action. He went to a city-run facility in West Palm Beach called Phipps Park where he had skated and told the manager he’d like to help.
So Gehl went on Craigslist and bought a refrigerator, then filled it with food and snacks. He went back two weeks later and found it empty, so he filled it up again with apples and oranges and Lunchables and Crustables and popsicles – anything to keep the kids from getting hangry (a term that reflects when hunger makes someone angry.)
And every two weeks since, the refrigerator has been restocked.
When Gehl is on the road playing – he spent last season continents away, competing on PGA TOUR China – he’s got plenty of friends to help. Drew Page, another former Oklahoma State golfer who now works for Scotty Cameron, is one of his go-to guys. Michelle Wie West, who has been known to sport Hangry Project gear, even went on a shopping trip with Gehl.Brad Gehl started The Hangry Project, which aims to support meaningful play in the skateboard community by keeping the kids safe, fed and happy. (Courtesy of Shaye Babb)
“She was able to see the kids and kind of feel what I feel there and why it's so important and how excited the kids are,” Gehl says. “When I pull up with a truck bed full of snacks ... it's so fun. You’re able to see the joy when you’re helping the kids.”
Gehl knows skateboarding is considered counter-culture in many ways but he sees a lot of similarities in the kids’ passion with what drove him to become a professional golfer. And he wants the Hangry Project kids to have a place to grow and prosper, just like he did as a kid in Indiana.
“The Hangry kids are teaching me,” Gehl says. “That's the biggest thing that I try and tell people when I talk about the Hangry Project. Yes, we take care of food and snacks, and yes, that's very important, but this idea of supporting these kids that are so authentic that might come from a diverse background or a rough household, or we don't know what their at home situation is, but when they go to the skate park, it's a safe space.
“And for me, the golf course was a safe space growing up. It was a country club and I was fortunate because that's what my parents allowed me to have. And I never viewed it like that. It wasn't until I started skateboarding and I went to a skate park and I looked around, it's like, man, this might look a little different than a country club, but it is the same safe space.”
When the PGA TOUR’s International circuits went on hiatus earlier this year due to the coronavirus, Gehl has had the opportunity to get even more involved in The Hangry Project, which has become a non-profit funded through donations and selling gear. Right now, it’s based at Phipps Park, but he would love to see the concept grow around the country.
Shortly after the quarantine started, the First Tee chapter in South Florida approached him about doing a joint activity. The two settled on something simple – a summer golf camp every Thursday in July. So about two dozen of Gehl’s skateboard kids crossed over and learned the game he loves so much.
“It’s maybe one of the more special things I've ever done,” Gehl says. “The First Tee has been supportive of it and the Hangry kids have just their level of maturity and their athleticism too, in the game of golf, like some of them are good. They're really good. I was so, so impressed with them.”
Gehl is also working on a documentary about the Hangry Project. His brother Matt’s company Everybody’s Baby was initially involved but Gehl is now working with a different crew. The goal is to have the film ready to premiere at the Palm Beach Improv during The Honda Classic next year.
“I think it's really important to show golf in an accessible light,” Gehl says. “I think that in the past, it is perceived as very country club and very un-accessible but in 2020 anybody can go play golf. It's just a matter of where, and do you have the golf clubs.
“But there all of these resources out there that kids can take advantage of, whether it's The First Tee, whether it's Youth on Course, whether it's nine-hole courses, whether it's Top Golf, nowadays there is access if you just look for it.
“And the documentary, I want to make something visually that shows that The Hangry Project kids have such value in them, in their culture and in their authenticity that they can go to a golf course and they can learn golf and then take the lessons that golf has and throw that into their lives because that's kind of in my life.”
Gehl’s professional situation is looking up, too, after the TOUR’s recent announcement of the LOCALiQ Series. It’s a circuit of eight 54-hole tournaments in Georgia, Alabama and Florida for players who had planned to play the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada, PGA TOUR Latinoamerica and PGA TOUR China.
“I plan on playing all of them,” Gehl noted in a recent email, adding that he hopes to have the documentary involved at one of the events. “I am very excited to compete again. (It) will be great to get back after it.”