Amateur Golf Jacksonville

Charity Golf In Town

If you’ve played any golf in North Florida you’ve probably played in a charity golf tournament. Big or small, golf tournaments raising money for charity are among the biggest fundraising sources for charities in our part of the country.

“Before Covid, we held as many as twenty fund-raising events every year,” Chet Stokes, General Manager at Marsh Landing Country Club in Ponte Vedra revealed. “We want to be a part of the community and give back when we can. This is a way we can do that.”

Golf clubs have to strike a balance between maintenance, member play and supporting charitable initiatives.

“Typically, the club industry is a key player in helping charities throughout the state of Florida,” Leon Crimmins the former President of the Florida Club Managers Association of America explained.

There are some big charity tournaments, like Tom Coughlin’s Jay Fund event at the TPC at Sawgrass that’s been around since 1996, and there are some small ones, like the one my friend Frank Hughes started last year on Amelia Island to benefit the local Set Free By The Sea ministry.

“We know people like to play golf and we have some great golf courses, so it just made sense,” Hughes explained. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money to get people together, share some fellowship and have some fun. We raised a little money but more importantly we raised a lot of awareness of who we are.”

Last weekend I was invited again to play in the Funk-Zitiello, Champions for Hope golf tournament at the TPC Stadium Course. It includes a banquet Friday night and golf Saturday morning. In the past forty years, I’ve probably played in close to a thousand charity golf tournaments, but few have rivaled the Champions for Hope.

They raise a bunch of money; they create great fellowship and awareness, but it feels like nothing but pure fun while you’re there.

There are plenty of ways to raise money, but Champions for Hope picked a golf tournament. And not by accident.

“I thought about throwing an Italian wedding feast and making it a charity event,” Tommy Zitiello, the tournament’s founder explained this week. “Who doesn’t have a good time at an Italian wedding?”

They started out raising money for the J.T. Townsend Foundation with a few parties but then Zitiello’s wife Judy was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer seven years ago

Zitiello, affectionately known as ‘Tommy Z’ wasn’t sure which way to turn. The survival rate for pancreatic cancer is the lowest among all cancers. Just around nine percent.

“I thought, everything we built together was gone,” Tommy added quietly. “I listened to all of the statistics about beating cancer and the research dollars needed and found that the survival rate for about every other cancer had grown by fifty per cent or more. Except this one.”

Zitiello decided to ‘go big’ and started a golf tournament to raise money for both the JT Townsend Foundation and for research into early detection for pancreatic cancer. It was an ambitious effort, but Tommy believes through faith, he was able to create something special.

“I made my money in sales,” he explained. “My only talent was speaking and selling. And I’m convinced that I made money because God knew I was going to give it back.”

Champions for Hope has raised millions of dollars in its five years, including $700,000 this year coming out of the pandemic. They’ve helped 672 families here in Jacksonville who have adaptive equipment needs. Judy has beaten the odds and is a seven-year cancer survivor.

“You can’t just sit back, you have to get involved,” Tommy added. “It’s grass roots, friends and family and every bodies fully invested. Not one person makes a nickel working at our event. Our CPA, lawyers, our restaurants, our liquor, our family, all of our volunteers, they’re there for nothing. If you’re not working at it and taking your time, it’s not really charity.”

I heard that over and over this week. Giving, of time and money on a grass roots level here in town, is the key.

“Champions for Hope is the message,” he concluded. “A doctor once told me ‘When you give someone love you give them hope.’ Giving people hope is the message.”

While Tommy’s tournament is one of the best I’ve ever played in, the first “Back to Camp” tournament is the craziest.

In the mid-80’s it was popular to bring former professional athletes to town to play and entertain, as well as entice fans to plunk down some money to play with their now-retired heroes. It followed the Miller Lite and the Bud Light promotions at the time, celebrating how much fun it would be to hang out with retired ballplayers.

That first year was a rousing success in the fun category, especially when one player was found asleep under a bench in the locker room, and another was able to make his plane heading out of town by leaving his rental car on the curb at arrivals at JIA. Running.

Because of the expense of bringing the former players to town and putting them up for three nights, the tournament didn’t raise much money, but it did bring the charity a lot of notoriety.

“We’re trying to get the message out,” Tommy Z added about the Champions for Hope golf event. “I see new people each year at our tournament who heard about it from a friend. We just need to get lucky with a big philanthropist or a big corporation to help get to the next level.”

For twenty-five years I was honored and flattered to have my name on charity golf tournaments here in town raising nearly $10 Million. The first was to raise money for housing downtown and then to help kids in life-threatening medical situations have a little fun.

“We went from not having a golf tournament to it being our number one fundraiser,” one of the chief administrators of the charity told me after we got started. “It’s such a natural here and with the generosity of people donating things to us, we’re able to put that money directly to benefit the kids.”

Yes, generosity. That’s a hallmark of what happens here in the golf community and the people and companies who get involved.

Whether you’re asking for a restaurant to donate lunch or a big golf retailer to provide some ‘hole prizes’ the answer is almost never ‘no.’ And they get hit up every week.

“The donation of the club’s facilities is what drives charity’s ability to raise significant funds,” Crimmins added, noting how most clubs help out. “Some clubs donate the golf course and charge for food and beverage at cost and absorb the cost of brining the staff in on a Monday. Different clubs do it different ways.”

There were over one-hundred twenty-five charity golf tournaments held every year in North Florida in the late nineties. That grew to over three hundred in the next ten years, following the golf boom. While that number has settled somewhat, all of those tournaments need prizes and oftentimes the golf courses themselves are helping out.

“Every week we get asked a few times to provide a four-some as a prize and we always say yes to that,” Stokes explained. “But we also try and play in tournaments around town to support the different causes. It’s important.”

Charity tournaments are not money-makers for local courses. The off-day revenue (most tournaments are played on Monday’s when courses are generally closed) comes from corporate outings.

“Clubs are very generous and charitable,” Crimmins added. “Club managers try to provide a balance of not sacrificing time for golf course maintenance while supporting charitable initiatives.”

And this doesn’t happen everywhere. I’ve got plenty of friends from around the country who are constantly amazed by the generosity and the money raised by golf tournaments here in North Florida. While the World Giving Index has listed the United States as the most generous country in the world for the last ten years, if there was a measure for golf giving, we’d rank near, if not at the top.

So, when you see one of those license plates that says “Florida, Golf Capital of the World,” which is debatable, add “Giving” to that phrase and smile, knowing that’s true.

Laviska Shenault

Sports Performance

We’ve heard Jaguars Head Coach Urban Meyer talk a lot about how important he thinks “sports performance” is to the success of his new team.

What exactly is “sports performance?”

“There has been a lot of research about different tools to improve sports performance,” Dr. Kaitlyn Buss a doctor of physical therapy here in Jacksonville said this week. “From a scientific standpoint, there’s a lot of research about different techniques and tools trainers, athletes and therapists can use to improve sports performance.”

This week the Jaguars announced plans to build a 125,000 square foot football performance center that will bring state of the art training facilities to the Jaguars organization as part of a comprehensive overhaul of their facilities and the stadium.

Meyer has been vocal and to the point that the Jaguars need to upgrade their facilities and to stay competitive, he’s right. College facilities all over the country, including at Florida and Ohio State where he coached, put most comparable NFL facilities to shame.

“If a player decides to go somewhere else to get better, then I’m going to try to hire that person they’re going to, because they deserve the best,” Meyer said, explaining why he wants this new facility to move the Jaguars forward. “I don’t want to have a player tell me he can get better training in Phoenix. That shouldn’t happen, it should happen right here.”

Jaguars Owner Shad Khan said he wants to make Jacksonville a football destination and to “be the envy of other cities in the US and all over the world.” Although there’s not technically recruiting in the NFL, Meyer knows that showing off shiny new training facilities in Gainesville and Columbus enabled him to attract top talent to those schools. He thinks the same will happen on the professional level here.

Along with the Jaguars new football performance center, Baptist and the Jacksonville Orthopedic Institute are planning on a 42,000 square foot sports medicine complex that will include an elite training facility that anybody will be able to be as part of.

That’s not a new idea, but it is one who’s time is probably now right for North Florida. Dr. Joe Czerkawski, a Sports Medicine/Internist was way ahead of the curve when it came to creating a sports performance facility here in town.

Nearly twenty years ago Czerkawski created the High Intensity Training Center off of Phillip Highway, a place with the latest testing and performance equipment as well as a 25,000 square foot field house with sixty yards of artificial turf for training, batting cages and other “toys” to make athletes better.

“Remember the sand pit,” Joe recalled with a laugh this week, evoking memories of some of the hardest workouts you could go through. “That’s the kind of thing we created that was new. There was a lot of hokey science out there and that’s why I got involved. There were programs that showed improvement with some high intensity training without increase risk of injury. We only hired exercise physiologists. We helped athletes with sports specific training, and it worked.”

To open a sports performance facility like that on your own takes the right people and the right money, which Czerkawski had, but it also takes a steady stream of clients to keep the doors open. The HIT Center had contracts with the police and fire departments and was building group fitness and weight loss programs as a baseline revenue stream.

“You can’t stay in business with just three NFL quarterbacks coming in,” he explained. “You have to find the right price point for the elite professional athlete as well as the high school and college athletes and weekend warriors. Without that, you can’t stay in business. You have to find the people who want to be pushed just a little bit more and you have to find the right price point for them as well.”

The key phrase there is ‘people who want to be pushed a little bit.” Working out at a sports performance center isn’t just going a jogging on the treadmill and lifting a few weights. It’s training that will make you better at whatever sport you choose.

“Absolutely you can make a difference,” he explained. The data supports it and my anecdotal experience shows it works. The improvement in foot speed, forty-time, upper body strength. Does it make you a better athlete? Yes. You go into the sports acclimatized better. It’s not just from a power and strength and speed standpoint. It’s neuromuscular training as well. The confidence building, that’s part of it.”

With this kind of sports performance training being a part of professional sports, once pro athletes started taking that level of work into the off-season, some celebrities got involved as well. That’s when the general fitness public wanted to be a part of that.

“Are you training for the Gate River Run or are you getting Trevor Lawrence ready to play in the NFL? Everybody’s getting ready for something,” Matt Serlo, a Master Physical Therapist at PT Solutions in Pone Vedra explained. “It’s just the intensity of level. You need to be in the right hands, so your intensity level is right. You can get specifically trained for whatever competition you’re involved with.”

Serlo also believes that sports specific training for young athletes has helped the sports performance business explode in the last twenty years.

“Part of it is that parents want their kids to be sport specific, so they’re going to sports performance trainers. That’s why it’s good to have trainers who really understand the body and really understand the mechanics. They can break it down and train you biomechanically for the right sport. Records are being broken left and right because of the kind of training they can now provide. “

Dr. Buss sees patients at the Sports Recovery Annex on Hendricks Avenue and agrees, research and science have made athletes better.

“Bringing the kind of training that pros do to the general public is important,” Buss, a varsity cross country and distance track athlete at FSU, explained. “When you’re training that much, you’re breaking your body down, so you’re taking all of these tools to put them all together to provide care for the athletes so they can perform at their best.”

This kind of ‘elite sports training’ has exploded in the last twenty years. Professional athletes have been gathering in different parts of the country to train together in the off season and it’s become a bit more formalized. Dozens of NFL players have been working out at the Pete Bommartio Performance Center in South Florida each off season.

Jaguars’ Laviska Shenault and Shaq Quarterman are among those who honed their fitness there before the NFL combine. Bommarito’s business has flourished so much in the last two decades, he now has four facilities around the country.

You might recognize Jay Glazer from his work as a ‘NFL Insider’ on Fox Sports. But Glazer was an MMA fighter and enthusiast who started training NFL players with his MMA techniques and now has a whole business of elite sports performance training through his ‘Unbreakable’ gym in Los Angeles.

“We will find your breaking point and move it and move it and move it so when you go back to training camp or your recording studio, you say: ‘Man, this isn’t tough. That was tough.’ Glazer said recently in the New York Times.

Jamil Liggin was a track sprinter in college but now is considered a ‘speed specialist’ to over three hundred professional athletes based in California. He started with Marshawn Lynch and Odell Beckham, Jr. and it grew from there.

“When people ask me, ‘How much is a session?” Liggin explained to Men’s Fitness. “I say, ‘I don’t sell training—I give an experience.’ It’s mental training, it’s physical, and we are going to help you reach your goals—whether it be to tone up, lose weight, or get faster, whatever it is.”

And it’s not just about going for a run and lifting weights. Flipping huge tires isn’t going to make you throw a hundred mile an hour fastball.

“There’s a nervous system improvement,” Dr. Czerkawski explained. “It’s not just pushing iron for three months. It’s speed, strength, how your muscle reaction improves. Your body knows how to react to the stressful situations. Your muscle memory improves. It builds that confidence you need to be your best.”