Cristie Kerr was driving from the 2003 U.S. Women's Open at Pumpkin Ridge to the Canadian Women's Open the day her life changed. "My mom called me crying and told me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer," Kerr says. "She'd known for two weeks but didn't want to tell me until after the Open because she didn't want to mess up my tournament." After watching her mother go through a lumpectomy and eight months of radiation, Kerr launched Birdies For Breast Cancer in 2004 and began donating $50 for every birdie she makes to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation founded by the late Evelyn Lauder. Soon, Kerr's sponsors were matching her donations, and in 2005, she hosted her first pro-am to raise funds. Eight years and more than $2 million later, Kerr's mom is in remission and BFBC is one of the largest breast-cancer foundations in golf. Since 2009, Kerr's annual BFBC celebrity pro-am has been played at Liberty National in Jersey City, N.J., where the accompanying photograph was taken in September. The Jersey City Medical Center's Cristie Kerr Women's Health Center, partially funded by her foundation, provides free breast-cancer screenings, biopsies and counseling for women and men. In two years, the center has treated 14,000 patients, 25 percent of whom were uninsured. "When somebody puts your name on something, you can let other people handle it or you can get in the trenches," says Kerr, 35. "I get in the scrubs, volunteer my time and sit and talk and offer support." Kerr has been getting mammograms since she was 28, and she had her first biopsy at the center earlier this year after a lump was found during a routine screening. "I've been in the room, been under anesthesia and had a needle stuck in my breast. I feel it--I know what people are going through." Fortunately, Kerr's mass was a fibroid cyst, but she'll be getting screenings every six months. "I don't plan on retiring from golf anytime soon, but the thing I want to be remembered for is helping people," she says. I'm definitely no saint, but I think this is a calling that I'm meant to fulfill."
Arnold PalmerWhen visiting what was then the Orlando Regional Medical Center in the 1980s, Palmer was taken on a tour that included the very small room that served as the neonatal intensive-care unit within the adult hospital. "We can do better," he told hospital administrators--and mounted a charge. The Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children and Women was dedicated at that site in 1989 with seed money from Palmer and his fans, and the golf legend became a standard-bearer for charity at an institutional level. Now known as Arnold Palmer Children's Hospital, the facility that his generosity and influence built--more than $17 million has been generated by Palmer's invitational at Bay Hill alone--has been adjoined since 2006 by the Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women & Babies, established to honor Arnie's late wife. Arnold Palmer Charities also addresses prostate-cancer awareness, diagnosis and treatment via a club-based challenge, Arnie's Army Battles Prostate Cancer, and the Arnold Palmer Prostate Center near Palm Springs. Arnold Palmer Charities also funds the Arnold Palmer Pavilion at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Jack and Barbara NicklausThe golf icon and his wife, Barbara, have channeled more than $22 million in philanthropic giving since 2005 through The Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation in partnership with the tournaments with which they are involved. The Memorial at Muirfield Village directly funds the neonatal intensive-care unit at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and the Honda Classic, near their Florida home, supports the Nicklaus Care Center affiliated with Miami Children's Hospital, which provides specialized care to Palm Beach County patients. Barbara, who carefully chose the Nicklaus memorabilia on display there, has been moved by grateful parents, one of whom tearfully approached her in a grocery store to say how much it means not to have to travel to Miami for her child's care. Jack's commitment to sick kids and others, such as veterans, is typically expressed in very private visits.
Gary PlayerGolf's Man in Black has distinguished himself among The Big Three with his global approach to philanthropy. Founded in 1983 to address the needs of impoverished children living near his farm in South Africa, the Player Foundation has raised more than $50 million to help needy kids around the world. Six years ago it expanded into China's Yunnan Province to help children with HIV-AIDS. An early advocate for fitness, Player does much more than participate in golf-event fundraisers: Not only does he visit schools, including the first one he established, he gets out to play in soccer games, participates in sports days and loves to sing and dance with the kids. In London he rode a bike from an impoverished school to 10 Downing Street to raise awareness of students' needs.
Tiger WoodsUpon turning pro, Tiger launched his eponymous foundation with the guidance of his late father, Earl, and $1 million of his own to cover overhead. He has since donated winnings from events he has hosted and reached into his pocket to help youth from disadvantaged areas go to college through his learning centers and The Earl Woods Scholarship Program. The grin he invariably sports when he's with these young people reflects, friends say, the connection he feels with those who have beaten the odds to land at top colleges rather than with their neighborhood gangs. Given his time at Stanford, he understands their academic challenges and the difference higher education makes. According to Greg McLaughlin, president and CEO, the Tiger Woods Foundation, has donated more than $70 million to youth programs and scholarships in its 16 years.
Ernie ElsWhen the popular South African was in his 20s and playing in pro-ams almost every week, he rarely got to know much about the charity of the day and never felt connected to the real purpose of those events. His role, he believed, was to make sure the guests in his foursome had a good time. But when he and his wife, Liezl, learned that their then-4-year-old son, Ben, is autistic, golf and charity took on a new meaning.
"It has made it very, very real," says Els, who with Liezl dedicated himself in 2009 to work on behalf of other families with children facing the same challenges. With the goal of establishing a "center of excellence" in West Palm Beach that will promote best practices with worldwide digital reach while providing on-site treatment and research, they launched Els for Autism. Els says the family moved to the United States "because of autism, because we feel the U.S. is far ahead of any other place," Els says. "But we can still improve on the help that these kids need and the future that we can provide."
Els has learned that 90 percent of kids with autism probably will not be able to function in standard schools, and he hopes his center will look after those kids, keep them until they're 21 and help them find jobs after that.
Liezl handles day-to-day operations for the Foundation--"I told her, 'You're the boss' "-- and Els uses his appeal to stage events at prestigious clubs throughout the United States to fund efforts.
"What makes me proud is the guys who show up to our event," he says. "From Nicklaus to Rickie Fowler to Dustin Johnson to, basically, everyone. And they see Ben because we hang down there a little bit. Unlike me when I was 20 years old and not knowing what it's all about, they can see that This is his son. ... and they know what it's all about."
Betsy KingEven at the top of her game, the LPGA Hall of Famer believed that stepping away from golf--whether to build projects or visit orphans in Romania for Habitat for Humanity--helped her focus better when back on the course. Since 2007 she has brought her work ethic to Golf Fore Africa, an effort run from her Arizona home that enlists LPGA, PGA and Champions tour members in the cause of fighting AIDS in Rwanda, where genocide and extreme poverty have exacerbated the effects of the disease. With King covering the day-to-day overhead, the charity has raised more than $1 million.
Experiencing the AIDS pandemic up close on a 2006 visit, she says, was life-changing: "After seeing the spirit of the people despite the level of poverty, I feel called to be in Africa."
Although knee surgery prevented her from traveling to Rwanda last year, in December she'll head back for her sixth visit to Rwanda. It will be an opportunity to spend time with Chantal, the child she sponsors through World Vision; a chance to check in on the health clinic Golf Fore Africa built with World Vision, which serves 24,000 people; and time for her organization's latest project, WASH, which provides clean water and sanitation.
King's work is not limited to Rwanda. After years of working on building projects in the United States, she has also been part of a Habitat for Humanity project that built 45 homes in Lesotho. In February she'll make a Habitat trip to Costa Rica with members of her golf club, Scottsdale's Pinnacle Peak, and she'll continue to play in fundraising events for various charities in the United States. She understands that some people prefer to contribute their time and money to charities close to home--"just as long as they're helping somewhere," she says. As for King, she'll be spending part of each day in her home office, working with the help of only one staffer, trying to raise funds for families far away and convince more golfers to get involved in the cause closest to her heart. For more information about her work, go to GolfForeAfrica.org.