As a kid growing up in the south and pursuing the dream of playing on the PGA TOUR, playing in the Masters was the ultimate goal. In my dreams, I always had the last putt on the 18th hole at Augusta National to beat Arnold, Jack, Watson, Seve and the Shark. The putt always went in. It happened many times in my dreams but it never happened during my playing career. Here’s the story of how I finally went to the Masters.My rookie year on TOUR was 1992. I played mostly an exempt schedule through 1998. In 1998 I lost my best friend and fellow professional golfer Tommy Moore. Tommy passed away from a rare blood disease that took his life way too quickly. We had made a pact earlier in our lives that we would never visit Augusta unless we were formally invited. I remember as he was dying he looked at me and said “we should have gone to Augusta National.” It still pains me to this day to even speak those words. After his death, my golf career was never the same. I struggled from 1998-1999 but still gained Veteran Lifetime Status on the PGA TOUR. I bounced between the PGA TOUR and the Nike/Buy.com Tour (now the Kornferry) from 2000 until 2005. Enter Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005. In the days after Katrina my wife Elizabeth and I started a foundation called Feed the Relief. Our focus at the time was to help the first responders who were still rescuing people from the flood waters. We raised a considerable amount of money from a number of TOUR players - Vijay Singh, David Toms, Doug Barron, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and many others including a number of my former pro-am partners and friends I had made through the years. We used PGA TOUR catering trucks to feed hot meals to first responders during those first few months after the storm. In 2010 we changed the foundation name to the Kelly Gibson Foundation and have expanded our mission statement to include not only first responders but also military causes and children’s athletics. In early 2006 I received phone calls from Melanie Hauser, a sports writer for the Houston Chronicle, and Jeff Rude, a writer for Golfweek Magazine. They said I had been selected along with David Toms and Hal Sutton to receive the Charles Bartlett Award. The Charles Bartlett Award is presented by the Golf Writers Association of America recognizing a playing professional for their unselfish contributions to the betterment of society. I was speechless, not sure exactly what it meant until they said that I would be invited to Augusta to accept the award during the 2006 Masters week. It wasn’t a playing invite but it was an invite nonetheless. Haunted by Tommy’s words there was no way I wasn’t going to go. So let the excitement begin.
Who wants to go to the Masters without all their friends? Not me. I was allowed to have one table for the ceremony but talked my way into getting a second table. Charlie Yates, a member at Augusta, contacted me to help arrange private housing for the week. It was on now. I could bring 8 people. The email invites were sent and I had the “dirty seven” clowns and my wife. My career earnings did not allow me to have access to private jets but for this trip I secured a local King Air plane with 8 seats to take us to Augusta. We were going to arrive in style. You may recognize some of these names from the post office wall (or my stories on FB) – Jimmy Hingle, Giles Kibbe, Richard Williams, Ken Friend, Bob Kennedy and Tommy Brennan. My poor wife was the only female on the plane. She would soon find out what a guy’s trip was all about. Within minutes of the doors closing for our flight Mr. Hingle carpet bombs the cabin. We were heading to the Masters but it didn’t smell like Azaleas or Dogwoods that is for sure. I thought Elizabeth might jump out midair. Jimmy was a little nervous, it was his first trip to Augusta too. In fact, it was the first trip for several of us. We land and the scene at the airport was one of rows and rows of private jets. They had a row for the big jets, Lear jets and King Airs. Of course the first stop once we arrived was a trip to the bathroom. Everyone is waiting their turn when in walks the king himself, Mr. Arnold Palmer. The chatter stopped and the gawking began. It’s the KING! We all rushed out of the bathroom and waited by the front door of terminal. They all said I needed to stop him for a picture and we got it. Mr. Palmer could not have been nicer to our group. He said he remembered having lunch with me at Bay Hill during his tournament which caused me to puff up my chest a little during the photo. It was a great way to start our trip. We check into our house and immediately head to the golf course. The weather is perfect. Everyone walks straight to the back nine to see Amen Corner. It did not disappoint; it was packed with people. It’s prettier than I imagined. Some of the pros playing were kind enough to come up and say hello which made our experience even more special even though it stung a bit deep down for me. I wanted to play with them. Augusta National is magical.
Wednesday-Day two is filled with the sights and sounds of the Masters. We walked the entire course then watched the Par Three Tournament. Even saw a couple hole in ones. We take a trip to the pro shop tent for some extensive shopping. The merchandising tent at Augusta National is an amazing production, it is massive in size. We all had bought so much stuff I didn’t think we would be able to get the plane off the ground going back home. It’s awards night, a few more people have joined our group. We are now up to about 12 people including Rob Noel, my instructor, James Leitz, Mike Noto and Kevin Kennedy, Bob’s brother and chief troublemaker. I rent a 12 seater van to get us to the big show. WWL, a radio superstation in the south asked me to call in before the awards ceremony to discuss all that’s going on with our foundation and this award. I make the mistake of placing this call with everyone in the van. The interview starts with general pleasantries, then we get into the particulars about the foundation and the work we do. The radio host immediately says that the phone lines are lighting up and asks if I would take a few questions. I said sure, not knowing what the knuckleheads in the back of the van had planned. The first caller was Robert from New Jersey which should have been a tip off that Bob was calling in. His question was “had I ever played with Tiger or won on the PGA TOUR?” I’m like wow, what a first question. I answer yes and no quickly. (There is another story about that question and I hope to share it soon). Radio host interjects and we get back on topic of Augusta National and what it looks like etc. He then says you have another caller. You’re very popular tonight. His name is Richard from Algiers, Louisiana and he comes out with this beauty, “Kelly I heard your foundation’s name is Feed the Relief. I saw you the other day in New Orleans and it looks like you’ve been eating the relief. Are you eating all the hamburgers in New Orleans?” The host hung up on him, then says on the mic “it sounds like Mr. Richard has been enjoying happy hour.” I was losing it because the entire van is now giggling including the driver.
We arrive at the venue and there are 300 plus people in attendance. I get off the van last and as I walk in with my wife I see that we need to get nametags. I look for mine and it’s not there. A little bit embarrassing. I didn’t put two and two together yet. Elizabeth and I start to mingle with the crowd. Our group had scattered and everyone was working the room. After a few minutes I notice that Bob and Kevin Kennedy had pinned down Tom Watson in the corner, it looked like they were having a lively conversation. I walk over to say hi and notice that Bob had taken my nametag and Kevin, aka chief troublemaker, had grabbed Tiger Woods’ nametag. Watson hadn’t noticed but I was like come on guys. This is not the time or place to be clowning around. I was starting to get nervous, I had to give a speech later.
We all take our seats and at the table to the left of us is Tiger and his wife Elin. In front of us is Jack Nicklaus and Hal Sutton. To our right is Tom Watson and David Toms. The excitement is in the air, a few people in my group are already over served. I had lost them out on the course earlier in the day and they had been chasing their pimento sandwiches with a few too many Bud Lights. I thought it would be a good idea to have everyone rotate seats every few minutes so they could get some air time with Tiger, Nicklaus, Watson etc. It was a potentially dangerous move but I said what the hell. A few start to exchange seats and I notice that Rob had not moved. His seat was directly facing Tiger’s table. I stand up and walk over to say “hey, you want to move and talk to any of these pros?” Rob replies “I have the perfect view.” I look over his shoulder and his sightline was Elin Woods not Tiger. What could I say? Rob didn’t move the whole night.
The nerves are cranking, it’s now my turn to speak. David, Hal and I walk up to the stage as David Feherty introduces us. It was understood that we each had about 2 minutes to speak. I wanted to be the closer but so did Sutton. David chose to go first; he spoke about his foundation and how the storm had impacted his hometown of Shreveport with all the evacuees. I spoke next and could not stop talking. Imagine that. I figured it was the only time I would ever give a speech in Augusta so I was going to take my time. I covered everything we had done over the last year including naming all the people who had supported our efforts. Then 10 minutes into the speech I recognized Mr. Nicklaus and said if it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be standing on this stage. Told the story of the first time I saw him play in New Orleans, I was 9 years old and sitting on my Dad’s shoulders. Jack had inspired my dreams of becoming a PGA TOUR pro. Then I let Tiger know that if I had not let him win the Las Vegas Invitational in 1996, I would have been on this stage earlier. Everyone laughed. I apologized to Hal, he got about 1 minute to close, before Feherty put the hook on us. #augusta #mastersweek #ministeroffun