Saturday, November 24, 2007

I had yet to visit only four states in this great country, one of which was South Dakota, so a little while ago I was pleased when my agent told me he had booked me a speaking engagement in Sioux Falls for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. The date was the Monday after the International at Castle Pines, and I figured it would be an easy gig. They were picking me up in a private jet in Denver, taking me right to the doorstep in Sioux Falls, and later that same evening, flying me over the Canadian border to Sarnia, Ontario, where the next day I had another commitment.

The weirdest thing was that they were paying me a great deal of money for the pleasure of my company. I know I've said it before, but I love this country. I do about 30 of these speaking engagements a year, and it has never ceased to amaze me how anyone, never mind moi, could get away with such a scam. I had no idea, however, how much of an epiphany I was in for.

For a not-so-famous celebrity such as myself, a charity day is usually a little different from a corporate outing in that everybody I encounter is pleased to meet me and glad that I took time out of my busy schedule to help raise money for a worthy cause. Many times, the good people who attend are under the mistaken impression that the guest speaker is there out of the goodness of his heart. An already inflated ego is liable to burst a seam in such an environment, particularly when there's a jet and a limousine thrown into the bargain.

Everything was going swimmingly that fateful evening, and I met some great people at the cocktail reception before the dinner. As usual, I hoodwinked most of them into thinking I was witty, charming, and devastatingly windswept, with just a hint of vulnerable little boy for the ladies. I had a couple of glasses of claret to loosen up the old yodeling tackle before I spoke (okay, seven), and when Tom Hanson, the chairman of the South Dakota chapter, introduced me, my heart was light as I skipped up to the podium to regale the faithful with my best stuff.

Damn, but I was good, too. I only wish I could have been down among the crowd, listening to myself. It was with a sense of having done a job well that I sat back down at the main table to, as my malaprop-inclined Aunt Jean would have said, "A standing ovulation."

Then, it happened.

Up until that point, I had been aware of what the Make-a-Wish Foundation did, but like the parents of most healthy children, I had never made much of a conscious effort to dwell upon the subject. Such thoughts are simply too painful. There were a few sick children and their parents there, and one of the moms was scheduled to speak next.

Her daughter, Jordan, stood beside her, and unlike me, both were obviously nervous about performing in front of an audience. I started to squirm in my seat, feeling for the mom as she started to speak. She talked about Jordan's rheumatoid arthritis, the treatment, and how other kids poked fun at her child because of the effect that some of the powerful drugs had had on this beautiful little girl's appearance. All of a sudden I was twisting my napkin under the table, and choking up. I made another discovery -- I can suck, but my eyeballs can't. Jordan's mom went on to thank us all for a trip to New York, the spending money, and two visits to FAO Schwarz. Even better than that, they had the chance to talk to other parents, many of whom endure the unimaginable agony of watching their babies slowly fade away.

You have to be strong, I thought to myself as I blew my nose on a linen napkin, and then wiped my eyes. Yeah, I know, I did it in the wrong order, and got snot on my eyebrows. Tom Hanson grasped my wrist under the tablecloth and smiled at me. Some people deal with this every day of their lives.

Then, it was Jordan's turn to speak. She took the microphone from Mom, and for a moment I thought I was going to be all right. Then she thanked us all for the trip of her life. It was something she would never have been able to do had it not been for our generosity.

It was right about then that I knew I had to go back to the stage. Here was a little girl, not much older than my youngest boy, Rory, about whom I had recently heard some good news. Rory did not have rheumatoid arthritis, but a less serious form of the disease. For me, waiting for the results of my little boy's tests was the worst form of torture, and my sense of relief had been overwhelming. Now, I was listening to a little girl and her mom, both of whom had received the news I had dreaded, and they were telling me how lucky they were that I had come to see them in my private jet.

I felt like a guy wearing a big white pointy hood at a Nation of Islam meeting, but nobody in the room appeared to notice. I stumbled back up there after Jordan was done and did my best to talk again, and this time I sucked like a turbocharged Dirt Devil.

I gratefully accepted Kleenex from those near enough the stage to offer as I stumbled through a makeshift apology, and all of this from a career cynic who, up until this point in his life, had cried only when he picked up a check or spilled a drink. I told them that I was the luckiest person in that room because that night I had been given something that I had never even been smart enough to wish for: a chance to do something that would make me feel good forever.

I told them that they could keep their money and engrave my name on their guest list for as long as anyone would pay to hear my nonsense. Never mind the jet, I would crawl on my hands and knees over broken glass from Denver to Sioux Falls to hear Jordan say she had fun or to meet someone as courageous as her mom. Hell, I might even fly there in Clampett's single engine plane. (Actually, check that, I'll take the broken glass.) For me, this was like meeting Jesse Owens and getting to kick Hitler in the nuts, all in one go. It was me who received the gift that night, for I got back perhaps the most important of my senses: my sense of proportion.

I know that golf has had a bad rap over the years for being elitist and racist, but it's hard to make that case about professional golf, or the ordinary Joe who loves to play. This article is not about me; it's about the kind of people who play golf, watch golf, and love golf. People like that racist pig Fuzzy Zoeller, who has given hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless days over the years to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. Payne Stewart would have given his ass away, if he hadn't been one of those white men who looked like his tush had fainted, and God only knows how many young lives Tiger Woods is touching.

Over the years, the Buy.com, Senior, and PGA Tours have given a combined total of $473 million to charities. Last time I checked, that was close to half a billion. The NBA donates all the money from player fines, but even those guys couldn't behave badly enough to come within a bad week for the Bill Gates of the PGA Tour. It's good to be a part of this game.

That night, I asked for an autograph from Linda Bergendahl-Pauling, whose little boy, Scott, was the first Make-a-Wish kid. Scott was diagnosed with leukemia, but always wanted to be a policeman when he grew up. Thanks to the men and women of the Phoenix Police Department, he got to be a motorcycle cop for one precious day, badge and all. And then he died.

Linda signed her book, Little Bubble Gum Trooper, for me, a book that so far I have not been strong enough to read, but when I have, I think I will have taken one step along the path that will lead to an understanding of what it takes to be a real hero. I already know it has nothing to do with putting a little ball into a hole in the ground, although there is clearly something about that pastime that makes a difference.

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