Giving back: 'Putt-Putt for Peds' at Nemours Children's Clinic

November 05, 2007
By Lauren Deason Editorial Coordinator

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Little Donovan walked into the waiting room at Nemours Children's Clinic clutching a golf club that was easily twice his size.

The toddler, who turns 2 later this month, wouldn't let go, not until he was handed his very own plastic putter that he could easily hold in one hand.


Donnie, his pacifier a little crooked in his mouth after he flashed a toothy smile, was soon joined by a very special caddie, 1988 PLAYERS Championship winner and Jacksonville resident Mark McCumber.

Now, you won't see many TOUR caddies doing what McCumber did next. In addition to keeping score for his tiny new boss, caddie McCumber gently clasped the hand of Donovan and led him around a makeshift nine-hole putt-putt course.

At times, Donnie got a tad distracted by the other kids or wanted to play with the cardboard bricks, legos, green turf and toys that made up the course, so McCumber occasionally picked up his charge and guided him to the next hole.

Donnie's technique resembled a shuffleboard push more than a smooth putting stroke, and sometimes he had more fun picking the ball up and tossing it into the hole rather than using the club. But the newest little golfer and his caddie weren't out to create a future Tiger Woods.

"I love kids," said McCumber, who was joined at the outing by 16-year-old son, and Nease High School golfer, Tyler. "We have three children and three grandbabies. We have a 15-month-old and that same daughter just had a baby five days ago, plus we have a 5-week-old. Our whole family has always loved babies. I was one of those people who babysat as a teenager."

For McCumber and his son, former Jacksonville Jaguar Pete Mitchell and Ron Cross, the Executive Director of THE PLAYERS, Monday was a chance to give back to the community and support the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund that helps kids fighting cancer.

For Donovan and the other children, who ranged in age from 2 to teenagers, it was a chance to laugh and play in the hospital where they come to be treated.

Other than a bald head and a hospital bracelet, Donnie looks and acts like your average on-the-go toddler. But he's fighting neuroblastoma, a cancer that develops in tissue in the sympathetic nervous system and typically strikes children younger than 5.

Though he's nearly done with treatment, and they're hopeful that the disease won't return, it's been a tough fight for the little one and his family, which is why Coughlin helped create the fund to help children undergoing a nightmarish battle with cancer.

Coughlin, former coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and now head coach for the New York Giants, saw firsthand what families fighting cancer have to endure. When Coughlin coached at Boston College prior to his move to Jacksonville, he watched Jay McGillis, a 5-foot-9, 179-pound safety and the ultimate, selfless team player, succumb to leukemia at age 21.

Coughlin saw the financial toll the fight took on McGillis' family, so he decided to start the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund Foundation in 1996. Each year, the organization has hosted a Celebrity Golf Classic that has helped raise more than $1.6 million for families in need. The PGA TOUR is one of the presenting sponsors for the golf tournament that attracts celebrities like Bill Parcells, Eli Manning and Steve Spurrier to Jacksonville.

The waiting room that played host to Monday's "Putt-Putt for Peds" was renovated, decorated and furnished with games and toys by the Tom Coughlin Jay Fund. Large windows overlook the St. John's River, downtown Jacksonville and the hospital's interior, while Old McDonald-themed barn animals, fruit and vegetable paper cut-outs adorn the walls. Seasonal scarecrows and pumpkins decorate the walls as well, so there's hardly a bare spot in sight.

THE PLAYERS Championship has supported the Fund since its inception, donating more than $28 million to it and other charities in Northeast Florida since 1977. To celebrate the 2007 donations from THE PLAYERS, the TOUR has several "Giving Back" activities planned for this week.

The week kicked off at Monday's "Putt-Putt for Peds". Fred Funk will lead a fifth grade class as part of Junior Achievement on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Jim Furyk will attend an event to highlight the efforts of The MaliVai Washington Kids Foundation and The Boselli Foundation to assist economically challenged children in the Jacksonville area. The event will conclude with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for a new driving range, built thanks to donations from THE PLAYERS Championship in 2007.

Judy Rankin, Len Mattiace and PGA TOUR Academy instructors will give golf lessons to a group of breast cancer survivors on Thursday. On Friday, Calvin Peete will host a financial class for The First Tee of Jacksonville students and parents.

But on Monday, the kids at Nemours Children's Clinic weren't thinking about being recipients of donations or needing medical attention. They clamored to get autographs from Mitchell and McCumber, do another loop around the course, have their picture taken in front of THE PLAYERS banner or grab a piece of the sheet cake decorated with a "No. 31" golf flag in honor of McGillis' number at Boston College.

Mitchell, a former teammate of McGillis' at BC, has kids of his own and relished the opportunity to spend a day with the youngsters fighting cancer and leukemia.

"They are great golfers. They must have been practicing," he said.

"I had a blast," added Tyler McCumber. "It's the most fun I've had in a while...they called my dad to see if we could come out, and they promised it would be a lot of fun. And they were right, it was a ton of fun."

For McCumber, it's opportunities like these that remind him how lucky he is to have the chance to use his profession to help others.

"I am just tickled by the amount of money that THE PLAYERS has donated to Jacksonville. It's nice to be here and do a small part with my son. It's a nice reflection of what we have to be grateful for."

After becoming a granddad for the third time last week and watching his son's high school golf team become state champions for an unprecedented sixth time -- "I was able to see every shot of Tyler's this season and got to know all of the players", boasted the proud father -- McCumber said golf has moved down in his priorities.

Though he still plays on the Champions Tour, his family has become his main focus. And his fatherly compassion shows as he circles the room, chatting with parents, cooing to babies and, of course, playing some more with little Donnie.

His adrenaline gone, Donnie begins to look pooped as the putt-putt PLAYERS concludes. Instead of a putter, he tugs a blue and white blanket around the room plus a gift backpack full of kid-friendly items like a coloring book, a TOUR Beanie Baby and a PLAYERS tee-shirt.

Maybe he'll keep his newly discovered passion for golf, or at least swinging golf clubs, and grow up to become a PGA TOUR star.

But the important thing is that he, and the other children, get a chance to grow up.