All you Mindlands youngsters who're aching to play golf, but, sadly, have no clubs, money, mentors or places to play: Say a word of gratitude to Hootie and the Blowfish. The $300,000 the band will raise this year through its annual sponsorship of Monday After The Masters, which tees off this morning at 9 in Blythewood, will enable you to hit the links, swing a few golf clubs a la Tiger Woods and receive some tutoring.
All for free.
"Hootie and the Blowfish are making it happen," said Shay Noel, executive director of the S.C. Junior Golf Foundation, a nonprofit that's helping convert the annual tournament's proceeds into an eye-raising network of Junior Golf Land facilities across South Carolina.
Already, Columbia is the site of the first Junior Golf Land: A nine-hole, par-3 golf course along the Broad River where youngsters ages 18 and younger can play for free. Adults may pay, but it'll cost them $5.
The course was built three years ago, "and mainly because of the money generated by Hootie and the Blowfish, "Shay said of the facility that served 2,900 youngsters last summer.
Another Junior Golf Land will be built soon in downtown Columbia, near the intersection of Bull and Sligh streets, not far from the S.C. Department of Mental Health.
Others are scheduled to be built in Greenville, Spartanburg and Hilton head. What's so gratifying, Shay said, is that the pioneer golf program has attracted a great deal of national attention.
First Tee, a national children's outreach program for underpriviledged youngsters sponsored by all the major golf associations, has asked the foundation - the charitable arm of the S.C. Junior Golf Association - to be its partner.
"They decided they would like to do nationwide what we're doing in South Carolina. They said we're the national model. So we said, 'O.K., we'll partner with you, but we want to have facilities in every city in South Carolina. So let's start with the big ones first.'"
Hootie and the Blowfish members couldn't have envisioned how large a seed they were planting when they took over sponsorship of the tournament in 1995 and earmarked the money for Junior Golf Lands.
At the time, the tournament, being played at Spring Valley Country Club, wasn't making much money.
"When we were asked to get involved, we checked it out and realized it represented the perfect time and opportunity to raise money for charity," recalled bassist Dean Felber.
Paul Graham, the band's former tour manager who now oversees and directs the tournament, which attracts dozens of celebrity golfers, said "$5,000 to $10,000 went to charity when we took over in 1995."
Today, the tournament played at the USC Club in Blythewood is one of the state's largest single-day fund-raisers.
So large a fund-raiser, in fact, that the band recently formed the Hootie and the Blowfish Foundation. Forty percent of the tournament proceeds will go into the new foundation to help the state's needy school districts. The remaining 60 percent will go the Junior Golf Foundation to help build Junior Golf Lands.
"The band wants its foundation to underwrite youth tournaments, scholarships and summer camps, provide musical instruments to needy schools and ease some of the educational problems in the poorer schools," Graham said. One beneficiary of the Monday After The Masters proceeds is Fairway Outreach, a 12-year-old Columbia-based program for disadvantaged youngsters.
"We use golf as a mentoring tool to help impact the lives of inner-city children both academically and spiritually," said Jeff Becraft, the program director. "We do more than just teach golf. We use golf to teach lessons about life: teamwork, dicipline, good manners, that type of thing.
Thirty-five youngsters are involved daily with the program, while another 100 are involved once a week. "The $10,000 grant we receive from Hootie and the Blowfish through the Junior Golf Foundation has had a very significant impact," Becraft said.
If the Junior Golf Land concept spreads as fast nationally as it has in South Carolina, it will be another feather in the cap of Hootie and the Blowfish.
Since golf is the key to the band member's charitable endeavors, it's also interesting to note how their enthusiasm for the game slowly developed.
"When we began traveling around for performances," Graham recalled, "we usually didn't have to do sound checks in the local auditoriums until around 6 p.m. so we'd all go out and play golf.
"When we got better know, we'd play as much golf as we could, and pretty soon all of us became addicted. We even began taking lessons."
Few addictions have ever had such a pleasant effect.
Throughtout it all, the band members have held steady to their goal of "giving something back to Columbia" - a city they grew to love while students at the University of South Carolina.
Other cities, however, have tried to wrest the tournament away from Columbia, citing a greater abundance of hotels and restaurants to accommodate the more than 50,000 guests the tournament will attract.
"If hotel space was to ever become a problem, I guess we really would have to leave Columbia and move somewhere else," Felber said.
There's also the controversial issue of the Confederate flag flying on the Sate House dome. The band members once discussed moving the tournament to another state. But they realized how impractical that would be since the charitable money is earmarked for South Carolina.
"We also didn't see any reason in the world why we should be forced to mix politics and charity," Felber said.