This is the way we roll in the Lowcountry.
A bra salesman retires to Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island.
At age 70, he starts a golf tournament. He has the blessings of the people running his home course, the Harbour Town Golf Links.
Most importantly, Max Stein, a small man with big ideas, has the venue of Harbour Town, where the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing follows the Masters on the schedule for PGA Tour players.
He gets a title sponsor, and what was known for more than 20 years as the Mercedes Benz Golf Tournament is born.
Players are offered a round at Harbour Town and a second course in the area, one that is a private club and not usually available to the masses. It will cost them less than a round at Harbour Town, and they’ll get a box lunch from Piggly Wiggly, prizes for the winners and a shot at driving off in a Mercedes if they get a hole in one on Harbour Town’s windy 17th hole.
It will all benefit the Hilton Head Hospital Auxiliary.
That was a long time ago. The tournament will be played for the 30th time next Monday and Tuesday. So far, it has raised more than $600,000, most of it going to scholarships to help local nursing students get their degrees from the Technical College of the Lowcountry or the University of South Carolina Beaufort.
It helps meet a couple of critical needs in the Lowcountry: more nurses, and better-paying jobs.
Hilton Head Island had a hospital auxiliary before it had a hospital. That’s the way we roll. It was an all-hands-on-deck situation when the late Dr. Peter LaMotte put together the complicated plan to open a private hospital in a small community in 1975.
The auxiliary helped buy special equipment for the hospital, and keep the lights on. It also gave a town full of newcomers a community institution to unite behind. It did it with big events like the Hospital Bazaar and the Hospital Ball.
It also did it with an even older charity golf tournament, the Dr. Alligator Open, started 41 years ago and at the time targeting women golfers.
Charity golf tournaments are now a mini-industry in the Lowcountry. As one example, the exclusive Secession Golf Club in Beaufort opens its doors to the public once a year for a tournament to benefit the United Way of the Lowcountry. Golf has helped shape this place in more ways than one.
Max Stein worked almost full-time in his volunteer job. He plugged away at it until he was 90, still playing golf a couple of times a week but also caring for his ill wife. He passed away in 2009.
After 20 years, Max Stein turned the tournament over to Lew Wessell a decade ago. CH2 magazine noted the milestone with the headline: “Max Stein: Charity’s Little Big Man.”
Wessell also retired to Hilton Head with golf on his mind. He sold the Washington, D.C., area’s largest temporary personnel agency specializing in finance and bookkeeping, and he and his wife, Karen, moved south with three daughters, age 6 to 12. The girls are now a lawyer, a college psychology professor and a McDonald’s corporate worker in Chicago. Wessell credits that to the public schools of Hilton Head. He created the Volunteers in Public Schools organization to funnel more public support into the classrooms. For that, he ran a couple of charity golf tournaments.
Now he runs one of the granddaddys of them all, with 288 golfers and a waiting list each year. It’s now called the Hospital Auxiliary Invitational Golf Tournament and it’s played over the Harbour Town and Wexford Golf Club links, though Wexford this year is still climbing out from under the rubble left by Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 8. The presenting sponsor is now The Corkern Group, and it’s up to 13 sponsors this year.
Harbour Town is the big draw, Wessell said. But also, “It’s real golf.” You play your own ball, and there are no mulligans, scrambles or shambles.
No one has yet hit the hole-in-one.
The top net winners get their names etched into the Max Stein Trophy.
And in July, last year’s proceeds of $28,000 went to the local health sciences schools for scholarships.
That’s the way we roll in the Lowcountry.