Pro-Am gets a fitting finale after 40 years of giving back

This is the last year for the Delray Dunes Bethesda Hospital Pro-Amateur event. (Robert Valashinas/double RL photo)
February 17, 2009
Craig Dolch, PGATOUR.COM Contributor

DELRAY BEACH, Fla. -- When Bob Murphy and club professional Laurie Hammer opened Delray Dunes Golf & Country Club in the late 1960s, they had an idea.

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"We thought, why not run a pro-am where we can raise money for the local hospital (Bethesda Memorial) and also let everyone in the community know we're here?" Murphy said.

That was 40 years and more than $3.7 million in charity donations ago. The Delray Dunes Bethesda Hospital Pro-Amateur has the distinction of being the longest-running, one-day pro-am in the United States, but on Monday the curtain finally came down.

"We just think it's time," Murphy said. "Forty sounds like a good number to stop it on."

A good number with an eye-catching finale field. Murphy was joined in his going-out party by legends such as Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd and Gary Player; as well as three other World Golf Hall of Famers (Hale Irwin, Larry Nelson and Beth Daniel).

What tournament sponsor wouldn't drool to have a field like this?

"It's incredible that these type of players are giving me their times yet again," Murphy said. "Gary and Raymond even called me, saying they wanted to be included, when they heard this would be my last one.

"That speaks to this sport and this tour -- we help each other out. A big deal was made when the PGA TOUR recently went over the $1 billion mark in charitable donations, and rightfully so. But I'll bet another $600 million or $700 million has been raised with events like this."

Murphy pays each pro $3,000 for their services, but most, if not all, hand the check back to Murphy with a smile and a "See you next year." Trevino, who estimates he's played in 30 of them, has a room named after him at the hospital because he's never taken a dime.

A superstar such as Nicklaus could easily earn six figures by doing a corporate outing on a Monday. But he said he never hesitated when Murphy asked him to play -- for the second consecutive year -- after not being involved for a while.

"Last year, I said, 'Sure, Murph, I thought you forgot about me,' " Nicklaus joked. But the Golden Bear, whose 18 professional majors remains the carrot in front of Tiger Woods, became serious when asked about his involvement at a time he rarely displays his game in public.

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"Every time something has been on for a charity standpoint, Bob has always been there, no matter where you are," Nicklaus said. "He's always been a very good friend. I'm delighted he asked me to play."

Player was just as supportive. "I think it's wonderful what Murph and (wife) Gail have done," he said. "Forty years ... my God that's a long time."

Murphy has always put on a good show. There were times in the 1970s when comedian Jackie Gleason would make the drive from Inverrary and entertain the amateurs and gallery in his customized golf cart.

At a time when athletes turn down $25 million annual contracts, appear on too many police blotters and cheat by using performance-enhancing products, golf remains the most grounded sport. Every week, at every tournament, the PGA TOUR, Champions Tour and the Nationwide Tour leave behind nice sums of money for local charities that desperately need these funds in this troubled economy.

Having covered professional golf for more than 25 years, I admit I never paid too much attention to the charity side of the sport. I simply focused on what happened on the golf course.

That changed more than 3 ½ years ago, when my then-14-year-old son, Eric, contracted encephalitis and nearly died. The first place my son was taken? To Nicklaus Children's Hospital in West Palm Beach, Fla.

While my son was in a coma for four months at Miami Children's Hospital, I remember Player sending roses to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. Dana Quigley was the first prominent golfer to call and see how my son was doing. Nicklaus, Nick Price, Olin Browne, Dottie Pepper, Briny Baird and others did the same.

One of my best friends, Tim Rosaforte, organized a benefit for my family at the Floyd-designed Old Palm Golf Club that Floyd and his family so graciously donated to us. Floyd and Nicklaus were on hand, along with other top golfers such as Price, Brett Quigley, Jesper Parnevik, Ian Baker-Finch, Browne, Pepper, JoAnne Carner and Murphy. We used the money to buy my son a wheelchair-accessible van, make major modifications to our house when Eric came home after spending 15 months in hospitals and to defray our mounting medical expenses. And we also used the night to announce my family had started a foundation in my son's honor -- the Eric Dolch Children's Encephalitis Foundation.

This is what golfers do -- they give back. This is what Murphy and his pro-am have been doing for four decades. (Daniel said Monday she and fellow LPGA pro Meg Mallon, who both live in Palm Beach County, will continue to hold a pro-am next year to benefit the hospital at another venue.)

Last month Murphy was invited to attend Bethesda Memorial Hospital's 50-year anniversary. When the first tee shot was hit in his pro-am, the hospital had 70 beds.

It now has 430 beds, including a state-of-the-art heart unit, thanks in no small part to the vision shared by Murphy and Hammer.

"It's been an incredible thing we've been able to do," Murphy said. "Simply incredible."

It is, but when you consider how much charity runs through professional golf, it's also par for the course.

Craig Dolch is a columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.