It touches everyone. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, just behind heart disease in its annual impact. That has been the case for decades, despite more and more effort going into research and treatment. But more than mortality, cancer in all its forms affects almost every American in one way or another. Even if you have never been a cancer patient, you almost certainly have a relative or close friend who has battled the disease.
Every year, Elaine Gebhardt, the executive director of the New England Golf Course Owners Association, has done her part to raise money for patients and their families through an organization called Golf Fights Cancer. That nonprofit’s mission, according to executive director Cheryl McGuire, is “to harness the giving power of the golf community to raise money for cancer-related organizations.”
Elaine got involved through one of the NEGCOA member clubs, Juniper Hill Golf Course, in Northborough, Mass., which hosts an annual golf marathon. As happens often throughout the country, the Golf Fights Cancer Marathon invited players to tee off early and stay late, playing 100 holes in a single day. Similar to the fundraising format of runners who get per-mile pledges for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and other charitable causes, golf marathoners ask for per-hole donations to the cancer charities of their choice.
According to Elaine, “I’ve been participating in the Golf Fights Cancer Marathon for eight years now. Every year, there has been a significant story that made me want to do it. The first year, there was a good friend of mine who had been diagnosed with Stage-4 lung cancer. The first couple of marathons I did were for her. Then my sister got diagnosed with breast cancer and she was the impetus for another year. And then I had a cousin get diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, so that was another reason for me to participate.”
Every marathoner has a similar story – parents, siblings, cousins, friends: The list of those struck by cancer caused the event at Juniper Hill to fill up so quickly that the course owner added a second day.
“It’s a 36-hole facility and they give the marathoners both courses,” Elaine said. “Originally it was a one-day event with about 40 marathoners and now it’s two days with 80 marathoners. The owner, who is one of our (NEGCOA) members, had cancer affect his family as well.
“So this event hits close to home and means a lot to him. That’s important when you’re asking a 36-hole facility to give up both courses to a charity for two days in the height of the season.”
In her seventh marathon, in the summer of 2021, Elaine’s reason for playing got even more important. “When I played in that event in May of 2021, I was undergoing cancer treatment myself. I was diagnosed with breast cancer on Christmas Eve (2020).
“Right after that, I had biopsies, surgery and radiation treatments. I didn’t play any golf during that time and had just finished my radiation treatment two weeks before the marathon. During that spring, when you would normally be doing your fundraising, I wasn’t sure I would be able to play. But I didn’t want to miss it. All those years, I had played for friends and family struck by cancer. Then, all of a sudden, it was me.”
She went back to the well, hitting up past donors, even though the pandemic made giving a lot tougher. But word of Elaine’s condition spread fast, especially in the close-knit golf community. Not only did she find willing contributors, her pledges doubled.
“They came out of the woodwork,” she said. “That was pretty amazing seeing people support the effort like that.”
McGuire wasn’t surprised at all. “This was a great opportunity for Elaine to feel like she was doing something to make a difference when cancer so often leaves us feeling powerless,” the Golf Fights Cancer director said. “Golf is a perfect vehicle for overcoming challenges and seeing someone at their best.
“That is Elaine’s story. She has always been there for others and then she had to overcome her own struggles. Golf is a perfect analogy for that.”
Not long after the marathon, Elaine received a call from the USGA. Bailey Chamblee, wife of Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee and herself a former collegiate golfer, wanted to interview Elaine for a video segment at The Country Club in Brookline, about a mile from Elaine’s house. What Elaine didn’t know was that she had been selected for one of the USGA’s Dream Rounds. During the interview, Chamblee presented a video message from Annika Sorenstam, not only congratulating Elaine on her inspiring story, but inviting her to play that afternoon at The Country Club.
“I was told I would be playing with the golf professional, Brendan Walsh,” Elaine said. “But when I got to the first tee, (former Boston Red Sox pitcher) Tim Wakefield walked up and asked to join us.
“That was just incredible. It was really a special day.”
Those special days continue.
“The marathon was in August this year and, in keeping with the fact that every year I play for someone, we had an owner in Western Mass who is in the hospital being treated for cancer,” Elaine said. “He was really sick all year, and that was one of the main reasons for playing this year.
“This year’s goal was to raise a million dollars and we reached it.”
She also has learned to be specific in steering the money she raises to places where it will have an immediate impact.
“We’re raising money for patients and their families,” Elaine said. “When you think about going from being a two-income family to a one-income family, plus you have the expenses associated with cancer treatment, that is a burden most people don’t need when they’re trying to focus on fighting a disease.
“If you are a family that is just getting by, and suddenly one parent has to quit their job because a child has cancer, mortgages don’t go away, grocery bills don’t go away. Those are the people I am trying to help.
“And I will keep playing as long as I can. I will continue to reach out to my donor base and try to expand the giving.
“I will always do whatever I can.”
This article was featured in the November/December edition of Golf Business magazine.