The Indian River Golf Foundation played through the coronavirus pandemic last Saturday, hosting the ninth annual Mayor’s Cup at Sandridge Golf Club to raise awareness about their mission to introduce children to the game of golf and nurture their interest and skills. Their belief is that children should have access to golf, regardless of skill levels or socioeconomics.
Local golf professionals were paired with amateurs for the event, named in honor of former Vero Beach Mayor and state Rep. Alex MacWilliam Sr., and enjoyed a beautiful morning on the course followed by a box lunch and awards.
Roger Van Dyke, IRGF founder and president of the nonprofit, said play was reduced from two days to one this year, due to the pandemic.
The Steven C. Owen award, named after the local developer, is presented annually at the tournament to a proponent of the golfing community. Van Dyke explained that it is awarded for “perseverance and overcoming adversity while using leadership skills to promote interest in the game of golf.”
In recent years, Owen’s name has become more well-known due to his country music star son, Jake Owen, but his golfing history goes back to when he made it into the 1978 U.S. quarterfinals. Van Dyke said he was moved by Owen’s perseverance and continued support of the game, despite his battle with cancer.
“I decided we should have an award in his name for those who demonstrate courage and have met life’s challenges with perseverance while contributing to the game of golf,” said Van Dyke.
This year’s award recipient, Craig Dolch, is a well-known sportswriter, including a time as a Vero Beach 32963 golf columnist, who has spent his career passionately promoting the game. It was while covering the U.S. Open at Pinehurst in 2005 that he learned his son, Eric, had contracted encephalitis – a disabling inflammation of the brain.
Dolch later founded the Eric Dolch Children’s Encephalitis Foundation to raise money for research to cure encephalitis and other epilepsy-related illnesses and promote their proper treatment.
In a recent interview, Dolch spoke of the heartbreak of being prohibited from visiting Eric in the long-term care facility where he resides due to the governor’s pandemic restrictions.
Additionally, Bela Nagy, director of golf at Sandridge Golf Club, was presented with a special plaque in appreciation for his support of the foundation.
“Bela virtually saved the season for the Indian River Golf Foundation and the 320 kids that are participants,” said Van Dyke.
The Mayor’s Cup is one of four annual adult tournaments hosted by the IRGF. The others in the IRGF Grand Slam are the Symetra Pro-Am, the Alma Lee Loy TEAM Challenge Golf Tournament and the Founder’s Cup, which was canceled in May due to pandemic restrictions.
Because golf is an outdoor sport, they have been able to continue their children’s programming with a few adjustments, said Van Dyke. That included BigShots Golf offering the use of their facility when Sandridge was closed early in the pandemic.
The IRGF was established in 2008 to help young golfers develop skills, commitment and perseverance, traits needed on and off the course. Players, who engage in several levels of play, work to improve performance skills, sportsmanship, knowledge of the rules, proper etiquette, care of the course and positive citizenship.
“We are now at 10 elementary schools, the Boys & Girls Club Vero Beach and the Gifford Youth Achievement Center,” said Van Dyke.
Staff members visit the schools to introduce the children to golf through the SNAG (Starting New at Golf) program, which uses plastic clubs, Velcro targets and tennis-style balls. Beginning in October, 170 students countywide will get their first taste of the sport.
Next, students participate in what Van Dyke refers to as real or traditional golf. Students meet after school at Sandridge Golf Club three days a week and Sebastian Golf Club once a week for practice, and participate in tournaments at the end of each season.
While waiting for the October launches, students can work on their game in two ways. Practice with the Pros allows children to shadow golf professionals as they practice. Go Play enables parents to rent a golf cart for $1 and follow their child as they walk and play.
IRGF costs to parents are minimal, siblings pay half price, and scholarships are available.
“We price each of our events and charge half of what we think it will cost us to conduct the event. We look to the community to cover the other half,” said Van Dyke.
They also make golf more affordable through its 10-3-1 Family Access program. At the Sandridge, Sebastian and Fairwinds courses, a parent pays $10 and can bring up to three children, paying $1 for each child.
“It makes the golf course accessible to the family, where otherwise it would not be affordable,” said Van Dyke. He adds that the foundation has deposited funds at the three courses to supplement the cost for anyone unable to afford even those fees.
“If we did not provide this opportunity, the game of golf would not be accessible to these children,” said Van Dyke.
Looking ahead, Van Dyke said they hope to hire an executive director and establish a more permanent home for the youth golf program at Sandridge Golf Club. Preliminary plans have been presented to the county to construct a building on the south end of the driving range there.
For more information, visit irgf.org.