As ESPN’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning” show wrapped up behind the first tee box at Barefoot Resort’s Dye Club on Monday morning, Darius Rucker settled into his familiar role as Monday After the Masters host.
The award-winning country music artist and Hootie & the Blowfish front man sang the national anthem for the fans who had crowded around the tee box hours earlier and then took the first swings in the celebrity long-drive competition.
And before he officially got his round started, he marveled at the vitality of the event he and his band mates got involved with nearly two decades ago.
“It’s really amazing 18 years later that we’re still doing this,” Rucker said. “I remember starting it in Columbia and not really knowing what we were going to do with it or what it was and how it was going to turn out.”
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It’s turned out better than they ever imagined.
The celebrity pro-am has been a perennial success in its 10 years on the Grand Strand at the Dye Club, selling out seven straight years and Monday’s edition was the fastest of those sell-outs. The approximately 6,000 tickets all were claimed less than three weeks after they went on sale on Feb. 25.
Fund-raising figures aren’t in yet for this year, but organizers said the 2011 tournament and affiliated events raised $350,000 for MAM charities, which include junior golf and education charities in South Carolina. Proceeds have also been on the rise, up from $300,000 in 2010 and $155,000 in 2009, when the country was mired in a recession. Fundraising peaked at $460,000 in 2008, which culminated six consecutive years of record profits for the tournament.
“I don’t know if we thought we’d still be doing it at this point,” Rucker said. “It’s still growing every year, and when you’re getting shout-outs from Golf Digest and those magazines are ranking you high as a pro-am, that always feels great. And then you get to raise a lot of money for charity and have fun too.”
Yeah, there’s always plenty of that.
Hollywood veterans Gary Valentine (“King of Queens”), Alfonso Ribeiro (“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”) and Kevin Sorbo (“Hercules”) helped get the gallery laughing during the pre-tournament long-drive contest along with emcee Charlie Rymer, and nothing seemed to be off-limits. From Valentine’s height to musician Colt Ford’s physique to golfer Jim Furyk’s nose, the varied collection of celebs played to the audience and each other while setting the tone for what is always a laid-back day on the course.
Local favorite Tyler Thigpen, meanwhile, bested them all in the long-drive challenge. The former Coastal Carolina quarterback, sporting his Buffalo Bills colors, cranked a 359-yard drive to easily outdistance Ribeiro’s runner-up shot of 317 yards.
“I’m pretty sure it actually hit a sprinkler head out there,” Thigpen joked afterward. “But no, I just want to come out here and have a good time. Last year I didn’t get here in time to play in it. I definitely was a little nervous. It’s a lot easier playing in front of 80,000 people than hitting in front of 200 people on a tee box, that’s for sure.”
Especially with Rucker, a proud South Carolina Gamecock, dishing out some Chanticleer-targeted ribbing.
“I just said a Chanticleer is a chicken in the roost ruled by the Gamecocks. I was just giving definitions,” Rucker said later, laughing.
Once the tournament began, former LPGA star Annika Sorenstam got things started on the first hole with a perfect tee shot deep into the fairway. As Rucker’s group was waiting to hit next, Rymer chimed in more digs at the tournament’s headliner.
“Darius, they got to Annika’s drive so they’re well out of your way if you want to hit,” he said, drawing more laughs from the crowd.
Rucker, the main draw in this event still after 18 years, was followed from hole to hole by a throng of autograph-seekers and picture-snappers and obliged as best he could throughout. While waiting to tee off on No. 5, a fan who had called out to him alongside the previous fairway asked if he could get that photo he wanted. Sure, Rucker said, but before he knew it the young man was climbing through the ropes as Rucker quickly chimed in “I’ll come to you!”
After posing for the photo, he returned to his group to mock Furyk’s trademark unorthodox swing before shanking his own tee shot. All in good fun, though, as the group got another laugh.
Furyk came to the event after finishing 11th in the Masters on Sunday and has become a fixture in the event the last few years.
“It’s a nice way to kind of wind down after the Masters. My wife and I always have a blast here,” he said. “I get to see friends we haven’t seen in a long time, just kind of reminisce and just hang out. ... It’s just such a fun event. I respect the guys in the band and what they do here and all the money they’ve raised over the years, so anything we can do to help out. It’s a lot of fun.”
The six-person team led by PGA Tour pro Ken Duke and former NFL receiver Sterling Sharpe won the tournament with a 20-under par 52, edging out the team led by pro golfer Boo Weekly and former NBA player Jason WIlliams by a stroke.
But the day wasn’t just about the numbers on the scoreboard.
Hootie & the Blowfish guitarist Mark Bryan had shed his shoes and was playing barefoot while teamed with LPGA pro and Conway native Kristy McPherson. Speaking before teeing off on No. 13, he too said he is surprised -- and proud -- of how strong the event has remained all these years later.
“It makes me feel great because it’s more than we ever expected would happen with this tournament,” Bryan said. “I think it’s because the community has gotten so involved, and you have sponsors who come back every year and want to sponsor again, you have golf pros who come back every year like [John] Daly and [Jim] Furyk’s in his third year and it becomes tradition for people like that.
“Same with some of the celebrities. ... Everybody wants to keep it going,” Bryan said. “Because of that, it’s only grown, which is amazing to say that after 18 years we might be bigger than ever.”
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