Shriners helped save golf in Las Vegas

Shriners helped save golf in Las Vegas

October 31, 2018 3:00 AM
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Had I been asked in 1983, when the PGA Tour returned to Las Vegas after a seven-year absence, how long the Tour would remain here, I would have said five to 10 years at most. 

This week, we’re celebrating the 36th consecutive year that the best golfers in the world are competing here, which places our city in the top five for consistent longevity.

That fact is shocking to me, and is due to an equal measure of good fortune, the magnetic draw that the city has always been for players and wives, and several lifelines that were thrown to the event when it appeared to be near extinction.

Panasonic was an early sponsor, then the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority carried the weight for several years, as did a tire company, a Japanese corporation, a legacy gift from a friend of UNLV golfer Chris Riley, and in recent years, the most endearing sponsor of all – the Shriners Hospitals for Children.

A visit I made to a Shriners Hospital in San Diego with other tournament committee members several years ago convinced me that Las Vegas had finally found the ideal corporate sponsor for our event. While touring the burn unit there, I met an Afghan woman and her 6-year-old son. The little boy had burns on more than 50 percent of his body from explosives detonated by American forces, and yet this humble mother told me she loved America and the Shriners for all the incredible care they had given her son. Her ability to forgive and embrace was something I have never forgotten.

The men of the Shriners who give so much of their valuable time to these crippled children are the best of the best. When you see them on the grounds of the golf course this week with their distinctive fezzes, give them a nod of thanks or a handshake for all the good they do and how much the Las Vegas golfing community appreciates them.

In the 20 years I had the fun job of interviewing the tournament champion for the gallery surrounding the 18th green at the Tournament Players Club at Summerlin, a couple of moments stand out.

In 1994, the surprise winner was Bill Glasson, a Tour veteran who had spent much of the previous five years on the injured list. Bill was an interviewer’s nightmare, answering detailed questions with one-word answers, leaving egg dripping off my chin. When I asked Bill whether my questions had offended him, he said, “No, sorry about that. I’m still just in shock that I won the damn thing.”

I got the opposite reaction the following year when second-year player Jim Furyk, who would go on to a Hall of Fame career, captured his first title here. He was nervous, emotional, and overwhelmed that his moment had finally arrived. When I asked Jim the old Barbara-Walters-sure-fire tear-jerker question about what his father and coach Mike Furyk must be thinking about his son’s victory, Jim’s lower lip trembled like a nervous hummingbird and tears spilled down his cheeks. His reaction was so raw and touching that I had to swallow hard to get out my next question.

But the interview that stands above the rest came in 1996, when tournament special invitee Tiger Woods, still not old enough to legally gamble on the Strip, stoically faced me moments after earning his first professional victory in a sudden-death playoff with Davis Love III.

All of us on the tournament committee knew that Tiger’s first win coming in Las Vegas would be a marketing tool for our event for years to come, so I tried to give him good lines to chew on.

I first introduced him to the gallery as “The wealthiest college dropout in America.” He stunned me when he said, “I think Bill Gates has me on that one.” (Of course he was right. Gates left Harvard after one year. Tiger was at Stanford for two.)

Then, when I asked him if he was surprised to get a victory on just his fifth start as a professional, he gave me that same cold eye that we’ve seen so often when he’s in contention down the stretch and which told the rest of the Tour that there was a new sheriff in town. .

“To be honest, Jack,” he said, “I’m surprised it took this long.” 

Twenty-two years and 80 victories later, he had a point.