Ron Sirak

Follow The Leader

Former president Bill Clinton has breathed life into an event that goes well beyond golf. Now the game's stars need to support his cause

Bill Clinton

Clinton combines his passion for golf and fitness at the PGA Tour's Palm Springs stop.

January 16, 2013

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- There was a point Tuesday afternoon when the true importance of the changes in the Humana Challenge hit home. Humana, the health benefits provider, and the William J. Clinton Foundation not only saved what was the Bob Hope Desert Classic, they are busy working with a variety of organizations to save lives. The question is this: Why aren't more players supporting it?

OK, you can make a case for Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Ernie Els being in Abu Dhabi for the HSBC Championship. They are trying to meet the minimum membership requirements on both the PGA Tour and the European Tour. But still, this might be an event they want to consider down the road.

And for the pure PGA Tour members -- like Tiger Woods and Jason Dufner -- the snub is a little more baffling. Yes, there is appearance money in the Middle East, but can it make up for the goodwill earned by supporting an extremely worthy tournament? Can it be more important than the good work of the Humana Challenge?

Former President Clinton gave the opening remarks at the Health Matters conference at the La Quinta Resort and Spa on Tuesday. And the sessions that followed were entitled Health Transformation, Access to Healthy Lifestyles, Healthy Communities and Living Healthy before Clinton closed the gathering. The participants were informative and determined.

Related: Bill Clinton one of our "Golfers Who Give Back"

But it was a painfully personal presentation on Mental Health & Addictions that silenced the 400 people in attendance for the late-day session. This was one segment those players who skipped the Humana should be made to watch on DVD.

Gary Mendell, the chairman of HEI Hotels & Resorts, told how his son, Brian, committed suicide in October 2011 at the age of 25 after years of battling addictions and after 13 months of sobriety in which he still could not find happiness. Watching a father talk about the hanging death of his son was one of the most powerful things I have seen.

"He died of a disease that is preventable, but is not prevented," Mendell said, his voice cracking with emotion. "Addiction is a disease that claims 135,000 lives each year and affects 20 million Americans. We will work tirelessly, in the spirit of loved ones lost and of those we can still help. That is the promise I have made."

Mendell has created the organization Brian's Wish to raise money and awareness for the issue. It is with these kinds of organizations that the Clinton Foundation and Humana have partnered to get out the message of healthy lifestyle choices and to set up concrete programs to tackle those problems.

Also on that panel was Vinod Gupta, managing general partner of Everest Financial and a longtime friend of Clinton. Gupta's son failed to wake up one morning after mixing Oxycontin and alcohol. The message from all seven on the panel, including Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), whose former House seat included Newtown, Conn., was that mental illness and substance abuse are public health issues of the highest order.

Related: The Grind: A look at the week in golf (and beyond)

In the second year of an eight-year deal with the PGA Tour, it became clear that using this tournament as a platform to advocate for healthy lifestyles is more than mere words. And what began last year with a Health Matters summit and a tournament was much more than a pep rally. Things got done.

Former President Clinton announced Tuesday that 31 individuals and organizations have pledged $100 million for a variety of community-based projects to bring the healthy living messages to as wide of an audience as possible. Among that money is a pledge by the PGA Tour to fund a coordinator between the Clinton Foundation and deserving neighborhood organizations.

"This is the single-most important tournament on tour," nine-time major championship winner Gary Player said Wednesday at PGA West, where the Humana Challenge is played on the Palmer and Nicklaus Course, as well as at nearby La Quinta CC. "If I was a professional golfer, I would make it my business to play here this week because you are helping get a message through to a country that really needs the message."

Subscribe to Golf Digest
Subscribe today