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Oklahoma superstar gives back through golf

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Wearing sunglasses and a golf shirt, country music superstar Toby Keith looked relaxed as he sat answering reporters’ questions during a summer event inside the pro shop at Norman’s Belmar Golf Club. At one point, another golfer entered the pro shop and waved to Keith like an old friend.

Keith might have glanced back in reply. It was hard to tell with the sunglasses. His deep voice never wavered, however, as the performing artist who has sold 40 million albums worldwide talked about two things he feels very passionately about: golf and helping children with cancer.

Keith cares so much about the two that he combined them, forming highly successful fundraising events. That’s why the 2015 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee was holding court at Belmar, the club he owns. Earlier this year, he and his family hosted the third annual Schooner Fall Golf Classic, a collegiate women’s tournament that raises funds for OK Kids Korral, which provides a cost-free, convenient, comfortable home for pediatric cancer patients receiving treatment at area hospitals.

“I think every famous person has some kind of foundation or something they do. It’s just, do you get lucky enough to find the one thing that really drives you, that you can focus on and say, ‘I can put my heart and soul into that’?” Keith said. “OK Kids Korral allowed me to do that.”

The giving

Keith got his start in the early 1980s playing the honky-tonk circuit in Oklahoma and Texas with the Easy Money Band, which he formed with a few friends, including Scott Webb.

“Me and [Webb] played together in the rough times, in the bar days,” Keith said.

By 2002, Keith’s music career had skyrocketed. His former bandmate and his wife Linda learned their 2-year-old daughter, Allison, had Wilm’s tumors, a form of kidney cancer. Ally and her family stayed free-of-charge at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, while she fought for nearly a year, finally losing the battle in 2003.

“At [Ally’s] funeral, my dad decided he wanted to start a foundation in her honor,” said Keith’s daughter, country music singer Krystal Keith. “St. Jude made [the Webb family] feel at home, and so my dad was immediately like, ‘I want one of those here.’”

Keith’s early fundraising efforts went to help the nonprofit Ally’s House, formed in 2004 to provide financial assistance to Oklahoma children with cancer and their families. Keith gave the first $1 million to start the Toby Keith Foundation in 2006.

“You’re not supposed to outlive your children. Anytime a parent loses a child, it’s really devastating, especially cancer. I can’t cure cancer,” Keith said. “But I do know one thing that Allison’s mother said, that she couldn’t believe how well she was taken care of when she got to St. Jude.”

Oklahoma City did not have a facility like St. Jude, but the Toby Keith Foundation worked to fix that, raising money for years to plan and build OK Kids Korral. The $8.5 million, 25,000-square-foot facility opened its doors in January 2014 and features 12 private suites, a gourmet kitchen, a neutropenic wing for children with weakened immune systems, a movie theater, a game room, playgrounds and a chapel.

“It’s Ritz-Carlton meets Disney World,” Keith said.

Today, his foundation raises about $1.2 million per year. Juliet Nees-Bright, Toby Keith Foundation executive director, said in 2010, it cut ties with Ally’s House, which had become self-sustaining, to focus on the Korral.

According to the foundation, more than 1,400 Oklahoma children have been diagnosed with cancer since 2005. Cancer affects one out of three Oklahomans during their lifetime and is the second leading cause of death in this state.

Each year, OK Kids Korral hosts a reunion for families that have stayed there and formed bonds only people who have fought for their lives can know, Keith said.

“When you show up at the Korral, everybody in there has the same problems you have,” he said. “Everybody is in the same boat, and that’s therapy for them. So it gives them a comfortable environment, and they thrive in it.”

The golfer

An avid golfer, Keith said he plays every day. He bought Belmar a few years ago when it was struggling and transformed it into a first-class club, adding onto the clubhouse, installing a swimming pool and developing the residential lots around the course. Designed by golf course architect Tripp Davis, the par-70, 6,519-yard links-style layout is in immaculate shape and has some of the best greens in the state.

To help raise funds for his foundation, Keith started the Toby Keith and Friends Golf Classic 12 years ago, an annual weekend of golf and entertainment that has become one of the state’s highest grossing fundraisers. This year’s event in July raised $1.2 million. During the live auction, two bidders ponied up $70,000 each for a week’s stay at Keith’s house in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.

About six years ago, Keith introduced his wife, Tricia Covel, to golf. She fell so hard for the game that in 2013, she and daughters Krystal and Shelly Covel Rowland started a women’s golf apparel line, SwingDish. Earlier this year, Covel traveled to Germany to watch the United States win the Solheim Cup, the women’s golf equivalent to the Ryder Cup, at the invitation of her friend, U.S. Captain Juli Inkster.

“They’re both really good,” said Krystal of her parents’ golfing ability. “It’s a big rivalry in our house.”

Three years ago, Covel started the Schooner Fall Classic as a foundation fundraiser and a showcase for women’s collegiate golf. This year’s event also featured a college-am and raised about $160,000 and Oklahoma State University topped the 12-team field to win the 54-hole tournament. Kansas’ Yupaporn Kawinpakorn won top medalist honors.

Everything the foundation has accomplished would not have been possible without Keith, Nees-Bright said.

“I think just having his presence, coming by the Korral and visiting the families and interacting with the kids, it’s just essential to helping them be stronger and feel supported by everybody,” she said.

Print Headline: Compassion caddie, Country music superstar Toby Keith combines golf and charity to form a purposeful legacy.

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