As an ambassador, Matthew Mason knows the ropes.
He'll meticulously tend the yellow ropes by the 14th green today during the final round of the 42nd Verizon Heritage golf tournament. He knows just when to pull them taut to hold back meandering fans. He clears the way so the PGA Tour players and caddies can march on to the next hole.
What Mason might not know is how many lives he's helped change for the better. He might not know that few people expect to get such a lift from someone like him, a 40-year-old man with Down syndrome.
Mary and Dick Mason of Hilton Head Island will be by their youngest child's side today. It's one more step in a journey of struggle, joy, excitement and sorrow. That's how it's described in a new book Mary Mason has written about her son to give hope to others, and let them know joy is found in unexpected places.
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At age 40, with two teenage children and a third-grader, Mary Mason felt like she had the world by the tail. Everything changed with the unexpected words: "You are pregnant."
Matthew was born a month early, and health problems were there from the start. When Down syndrome was diagnosed, she scrounged for information in the hardback Encyclopedia Britannicaand Parents magazine. Nothing prepared her for the challenges ahead, but she looks back on it this way:
"My husband, Dick, and I have been blessed to be Matthew's parents, knowing that God chose us to be so honored." She now sees God's plan throughout Matthew's life.
Matthew always has been an outgoing handful, always willing to lead the band and shake the hand of the governor.
His mother writes that he's been a "fundraiser, newspaper carrier, Boy Scout, Special Olympics champion, golfer, traveler, swimmer, fisherman, biker, guitar player, piano player, drummer, dancer, horse groomer, maker of cotton candy and latch hook rugs, bowler, skier, ski boat driver, tennis player, gardener, preacher and scribe who uses computers and plans menus and schedules of any kind."
For the past six springs, Matthew Mason has been one of 1,500 volunteers at the Heritage, working alongside his father, donning his straw hat and taking his assignment seriously. He throws himself into it with his usual exuberance. That's why his mother's book is called, "The Ambassador of the 14th Hole: The Inspiring Story of Matthew Jarrett Mason."
Matthew always had a relationship with the golfers. Davis Love III was the first to speak to him.
But he did the unthinkable one Sunday afternoon at the par-3 hole he guards. In 2004, golfer Ted Purdy came off the slick 14th green clinging to a one-stroke lead in what he called the biggest tournament of his life. He hit it long off the tee, then scrambled to curl in a 10-foot putt for par. The crowd erupted.
"Matt Mason, who was working as a marshal at the 14th green, gave me a big 'thumbs up!' " Purdy wrote later to the Masons. His letter is included in the new book. "I smiled back and tossed him the golf ball. He grabbed it, clutched it for a moment and then sprang forward to give me a big bear-hug of thanks. It was awesome."
Touching players is verboten. Dick Mason saw his years of volunteer work -- now at 26 -- being wiped out in a moment. But that's not how things worked out.
"I think Matt's hug emboldened me," Purdy wrote. He would place second that day, with Stewart Cink winning on the fifth hole of a sudden-death playoff.
"I think I won more that day with Matt's genuine gesture of happiness and appreciation than if I had pulled out the victory," Purdy wrote. "Matt's hug taught me to always look around and appreciate and thank the people around me. Now, I always make it a point to thank the volunteers at golf tournaments. It's a small and simple thing to say 'thank you,' but as Matt's awesome reaction taught me, those small, simple acts of gratitude will stay in people's hearts forever."
Purdy also sent a check for $50,000 to the Benedictine Foundation in Ridgely, Md., where his new friend attended the Benedictine School for Exceptional Children and now works and lives in a group home with adult peers. All proceeds from Mary Mason's book will go to the Benedictine Foundation.
Mary Mason says her youngest child changed her faith to something much stronger and more personal. She has learned from Matthew "all we need to know about life: Live day by day, love the Lord, love people, and think about other people more than yourself."
Purdy was in the Heritage field this year for the fifth time. During the opening round, he had a grand reunion with the "ambassador of the 14th hole." When he got back to the clubhouse at even par, he had a copy of Mary Mason's book in his golf bag.
He told me he still thinks about how Matthew's burst of joy lifted a heavy burden from his shoulders.
"It reminds me that what we're doing is just not that important," Purdy said. "The things that burden us in life are not all that important. We can make a double-bogey on one hole, but an eagle on the next."
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"The Ambassador of the 14th Hole" can be purchased at Burke's Main Street Pharmacy, the Pink House Gallery, Sea Pines Country Club, Bogey's Coffee Cafe and Palmettoes, or by e-mailing Mary Mason at email@example.com. All proceeds go to the Benedictine Foundation, www.benschool.org.