Date: June 9, 2003
Publication: Indianapolis Business Journal (IN)
BENNER: Friends and golf help former Hoosier battle ALS
Author(s): Bill Benner
This is a story of love . Love of golf . Love of a friend .
This is also a story of courage , and a man’s refusal to say , “Why me?” but , instead , “What can I do to make the best of this?”
This is the story of Matt White , and Matt‘s friends , the kind of friends we all would like to have .
Matt is 36 . He’s the general sales manager for WKQX-FM 101 , an Emmis Communications Corp .-owned radio station in Chicago . He’s a native of North Manchester and a graduate of Butler University , where he ran track and cross country .
Ah , but golf was/is his passion . He learned to play the game as a youngster , when he and his brother would loft 7-iron shots over power lines in their back yard .
Five years ago , Matt , who was then working for Emmis-owned WENS-FM 97 .1 in Indianapolis , carried a handicap in the single digits . To indulge his passion , he bought a house on the city’s northeast side and joined nearby Hillcrest Country Club .
Life was about as good as it gets . Life was about to change .
Shortly after joining Hillcrest , Matt‘s game began to erode . His handicap rose . He was losing strength , endurance and distance . His left hand felt weak , and he couldn’t straighten his index finger .
Professionally , everything was fine , and he accepted a promotion to the Chicago station . But physically , something was wrong . At a family reunion , an uncle who is a physician noticed Matt‘s hand and suggested he see a neurologist . Tests were run , and the diagnosis came back .
ALS . The incurable , fatal Lou Gehrig’s disease .
Understandably devastated , Matt kept the news mostly to himself for a while . Then he decided to take advantage of what he calls “opportunities .” Cursed with an awful disease? Hardly . Matt says , repeatedly , “I’m blessed .”
Blessed , he says , to have the opportunity to engage in a deeper relationship with God . Blessed to have the opportunity to tell family and friends how much they mean to him . Blessed to still be alive (longer than most ALS patients , he notes) and working . Blessed to start a foundation . His goal: “to raise $1 million in my lifetime” with the money going to ALS research . He’s nearly halfway there , and a fund-raiser at Emmis headquarters June 8 will help even more .
And he was blessed to have the opportunity to embark on an incredible golf journey with his friends at his side .
Matt summoned his friends: the McManus brothers , Conan and Mike; Steve Sanner , of local Jiffy Lube fame; Rick Berry; Andy Slack; his own brother , Sam; and others . He told them he wanted them–needed them– to be along for the ride . Of course , they said yes .
So they went to Scotland , and played St . Andrews , Carnoustie and Turnberry . Back in the States , they journeyed east , to Scioto and Muirfield in Columbus , Ohio; to Oakmont and Laurel Valley near Pittsburgh; to Pine Valley and Merion near Philadelphia , to Winged Foot and Shinnecock Hills in New York .
In Chicago , they played Butler National , Medinah and Olympia Fields . Out West , they played Olympic Club , San Francisco Country Club , Spyglass , Cypress Point , Pebble Beach , Bel Air and the L .A . Country Club . They went south to play Pinehurst No . 2 , and north to Michigan to play Oakland Hills .
Emmis Chairman Jeff Smulyan heard about Matt‘s golf tour .
“OK , where would you really like to play?” Smulyan asked . “Augusta National ,” Matt replied . “Done ,” Smulyan said .
The “done” took months of doing , but Smulyan came through . One day , the phone rang . “Can you be in Augusta by 11 tomorrow morning?” Smulyan’s secretary asked . “You bet I can ,” Matt said .
Smulyan had parlayed a connection that reached Arnold Palmer . Matt White played Augusta .
His skills continued to deteriorate as his strength waned . Only a chance encounter with a one-armed golfer–who was wearing a glove with a strap that kept his artificial limb affixed to the club handle–enabled him to continue . Matt ordered the special glove , and was at least able to hold onto the club with his weakened left hand .
But his golf clock was ticking down as his score was soaring into the 100s . He couldn’t hit the ball unless it was on a tee , even in the fairway . “It just wasn’t golf any longer ,” he says .
One last trip was scheduled , to California . He played his final round at Cypress Point . Only his pals , however , weren’t done . They had arranged , in the day’s twilight , for Matt to play one more hole: the achingly picturesque par-3 seventh at Pebble Beach , which overlooks Monterey Bay .
So there they were , just Matt and his friends . It took him three shots to reach the green , and his bogey putt stopped well short . But darned if he didn’t roll in a 15-footer for double .
His friends cheered him , hugged him and cried with him . They uncorked a bottle of champagne , and watched the sun drop into the Pacific .
Love of golf . Love of friends .
For more information on Matt‘s foundation , go to www .CureALS .org .
Benner , a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star , is now vice president of communications for the not-for-profit Indiana Sports Corp . His column appears weekly . To comment on this column , go to IBJ Forum at www .ibj .com or send e-mail to bbenner@ibj .com .
Copyright, 2003, IBJ Corp. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of IBJ Corp. by NewsBank, inc.