Betsy King had a glittering career as a professional golfer, but now uses her position as an LPGA Hall of Famer to help communities in Africa through her ‘Golf Fore Africa’ charity. Sportsister looks at whether this kind of charity work can in fact make you a better athlete.
It was well documented when Rory McIlroy recently spent some time in cyclone ravaged Haiti, his first field trip since his appointment as a UNICEF Ambassador. McIlroy met with the local people and witnessed the ongoing devastation in the country immediately prior to his US Open triumph in June, and was quoted as saying that the experience has made him change the way he thinks.
The perspective he gained on life from this visit may or may not have been a contributing factor to his superlative performance at the US Open shortly after, but he will most likely view the rest of a jet set career spent around the trappings of wealth a whole lot differently.
Such experiences at a young age can shape the world view of individuals for ever. The story of LPGA Hall of Famer, Betsy King, is of a person who has continued the walk down the path of philanthropy and charity that McIlroy has just started to tread. And the cause that she is tipping all her energies into today is inspirational and worthy of broader exposure and support.
Throughout her glittering playing career, which included six major victories in 34 LPGA wins, multiple Player of the Year awards, five Solheim Cup appearances for the US and one as captain, King dedicated herself to numerous charitable causes at home and in countries like Romania, after becoming involved through the Tour’s Christian Fellowship Group early in her career.
King is still the last US player to top the LPGA Money List, way back in 1993, and took the decision to wind up her playing commitments in 2005. She returned home shortly after a visit to Africa to set up the organisation: ‘Golf Fore Africa’, to raise funds within the golfing community to support AIDS ravaged communities in countries such as Rwanda and Lesotho.
“For me personally, I think that it (the charity work) helped my golf as it kept everything in perspective. I remember once after winning in Japan to become ‘Player of the Year’, getting on a plane back to the US and then getting on another plane the next day to fly to Romania to visit orphanages. You talk about putting things into perspective, playing at beautiful golf clubs, staying in nice hotels, you can lose sight of how the rest of the world lives.
“Stacy Lewis (pictured above right) this year, she went to Africa with us last December and came back with a new frame of mind and came out and won the Kraft Nabisco Championship. She said she had the mindset now that ‘the better I do, the more I can help others.’ Lorena Ochoa too, she wanted to use the platform she established in her career to do something immediately (rather than wait till she retired). So she set up a foundation and has funded a school in Guadalajara, Mexico… and then retired at age 28!
“Katherine Hull has a great heart anyway but she was really touched but what she saw with us in Africa. She met her sponsor child there and had a hard time leaving him, knowing what he was going home to and what she was going back to.
“So (for me) there is life after golf. At one point in my career, I remember thinking ‘What in the world am I going to do when I retire?’, but this has been the most meaningful part of my life.”
On that fateful World Vision trip to Africa that King took with a group of people that lead to ‘Golf Fore Africa, she saw firsthand how AIDS and poverty has impacted communities with the most affected being women and children. She learned that 15 million children have been orphaned by AIDS, saw grandparents raising their grandchildren, often in one bedroom houses with dirt floors and tin roofs, because their children had passed away through AIDS.
“When you think that the ‘majority’ of the population live that way, it’s quite shocking. We came across a HIV positive woman with five children who thought three of them were also infected. Her husband had died from AIDS and she was cooking one egg to feed the whole family. The average African only eats five times per week.
“After being on the LPGA Tour for 28 years, I knew how charitable the golf community can be so I thought I’d try to do something that way. Obviously the problem is huge but if everyone does something, we can make a difference.
“About 60 LPGA players, including Lorena Ochoa and Juli Inkster, have been involved in one way or another with Golf Fore Africa; by visiting Africa, playing in fund raising events or sponsoring children directly through World Vision in Rwanda and Lesotho. Some of the guys like Aaron Baddeley, Bubba Watson and Paul Goydos, have also played some events and made contributions too.
“We’re building 45 homes for children affected or orphaned by AIDS in Lesotho. We had the opportunity to help work on the houses when we visited last December, about 10 are completed and the rest should be done by the end of next year. It’s making a difference, giving children a safe place to live, keeping them in school until they’re of adult age. The families are also receiving agricultural support, water tanks, pit latrines, so it’s helping with their health and ability to feed and take care of themselves.”
King made the point that monetary contributions really do go a long way in these countries too, as do US$35 per month World Vision child sponsorships. “The houses we’re building within the project cost about $12, 500 for each building so a dollar does go a long way there.”
King mentioned that people sometimes think that ‘Golf Fore Africa’ is about growing participation in golf, which is not the case. However, there have been some activities that have come about as a result of her work in that part of the world.
“There is one woman professional in Kenya, Rose Naliaka, that we’ve done some work with in a junior girls’ program that she has. The big draw to get the girls to participate is that they get a free meal, so she’s using that get them in, to teach them, to give them hope and to dream. I’ve gotten some clubs donated from Ping plus some golf shoes and clothing from around here in Scottsdale for them to use at the range they have inside a racetrack.”
The now 55 year old King hadn’t played much golf of her own lately, apart from a few of the Legends Tour events in the US. However, six years since she last played in a Major, King bobbed up in a US Women’s Open qualifier at the Alta Mesa Golf Club near her home in Phoenix this past June and successfully qualified for the Open!
“I struggled when I got there though, I soon realised why I retired!” said the two time US Women’s Open champion, who missed the cut at The Broadmoor in Colorado. ”The qualifying was here in Phoenix over 36 holes, which I thought would be a good warm up for a Legends event I was playing in the next week. I surprised myself by qualifying but the course was a little long for me at the Open, even at altitude.”
King will attend the Solheim Cup matches in Ireland in September as a former US Team Captain, and thinks the matches will be keenly fought. “I think the US team will do pretty well but it is interesting combination of players. You have (veteran) Juli Inkster all the way down to Ryann O’Toole who has played 7 events on the Tour, so I thought that was a pretty interesting pick.
“I think that Rosie (US Team Captain Rosie Jones) went with the players who did well up to the last qualifying event. They (O’Toole and fellow Captain’s pick Vicky Hurst) both hit the ball a mile so it will be interesting to see how they go.”
King will also play the final Legends Tour event of the year at the Innisbrook Resort in Florida in November, which she enjoys as it allows her to catch up with old friends but also to help further the cause of Golf Fore Africa. She’s not sure how much longer she will be able to keep playing these events as she says it get harder every year, but her devotion and energy for Golf Fore Africa will undoubtedly continue on.
The inspirational King encourages anyone to check the Golf Fore Africa website for information on the projects, www.golfforeafrica.com, or to contact her directly through the website contact details to see how they can donate or join with her in making a difference in such vulnerable communities.
Paul Prendergast, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine