Was tiny startup above Dan Rooney’s garage last time PGA Championship came to Tulsa
Written by Jeff Babineau @JeffBabz62
The last time a major rolled through Tulsa, Oklahoma, and storied Southern Hills Country Club was 15 years ago, with the 2007 PGA Championship. Then-Major Dan Rooney was a PGA professional and Oklahoma Air National Guard fighter pilot who, when not racing F-16s across the sky, was trying to get his fledgling charitable mission to help children and spouses of wounded and fallen service members into flight.
Gary Woodland was a long-hitting youngster out of Kansas with a lot to learn about golf. He was trying to get his own career airborne on the Hooters Tour, saving up the scraps from small paydays toward entry into the PGA TOUR Qualifying School that autumn.
With the PGA at Southern Hills again this week, Rooney and Woodland find themselves worlds away from where they stood a decade and a half ago. They have watched their dreams bear bountiful fruit. Rooney, 49, not only got the Folds of Honor started, but the charity is thriving, changing lives for the better through educational scholarships. Fifteen years after a small fundraising tournament in Michigan organized by Rooney and his dad, Dr. John Rooney, raised just less than $9,000, the Folds of Honor expects to surpass $200 million in scholarships in 2022.
The Folds is poised for its biggest year yet in ’22, budgeting to generate $40 million that would fund 8,000 scholarships in the fall. Rooney once put pictures of each recipient on his refrigerator. He no longer can fit them. The Folds has awarded more than 35,000 scholarships.
Rooney’s mission to leave no family behind received a tremendous boost in April with a powerful new alliance alongside the PGA TOUR, LPGA and USGA. Already, the PGA of America had partnered with Folds on Patriot Golf Days, a grassroots fundraising effort over Memorial Day Weekend that raises funds for scholarships as well as PGA HOPE (Helping Our Patriots Everywhere), the flagship military program of PGA REACH.
“This is transformational for Patriot Golf Days,” Rooney said of the backing. “The weight of their brands, and their reach, is critical.”
As for Woodland, he has done OK, too. The Jayhawks grad is now a husband and a father of three. He’s won four times on the PGA TOUR, including the 2019 U.S. Open Championship at Pebble Beach. Earlier this season, Woodland, who turns 38 on Saturday, surpassed $30 million in career TOUR earnings. He will be among the top players competing at Southern Hills.
Rooney (pilot call sign: “Noonan”) and Woodland first met in 2006, when the Kansas golf team played Southern Hills and was invited to dinner afterward at Rooney’s home. Rooney is a lifelong Okie but had played at Kansas a decade earlier. The late Ross Randall, the legendary men’s golf coach at Kanas, told Rooney that he would hit it off with the Woodland kid, a grounded Midwesterner by way of Topeka.
Randall was right. Rooney and Woodland have built a relationship stronger than new rope. For all the success enjoyed by the Folds, Woodland has been there for every step, having traveled to Tulsa between spring TOUR events to appear in 10 Patriot Cups over Memorial Day Weekend, supporting the organization not just with his name, but with his time, his heart, and his wallet.
“It’s the biggest cause that I support,” said Woodland, who sponsors a hole at the Jack Nicklaus-designed American Dunes in Grand Haven, Michigan, where all proceeds benefit the Folds. Woodland’s hole is No. 13, a par 5 of 677 yards from the tips, played into a prevailing wind.
“I had grandparents in the military, and my wife had a grandparent in the military as well,” Woodland said. “Through Kansas (University of Kansas), I met Dan Rooney, and he taught me a lot. It’s one thing to say, ‘I support the military.’ It’s another thing to go spend time on a weekend, go spend time with the families ... The biggest thing that Dan taught me is that freedom is not free.
“I’ve talked to lots of families (who have had loved ones disabled or killed in action),” Woodland continued. “It never gets old, and it always brings tears to your eyes, hearing their stories and being around those people.”
May is Military Appreciation Month, an opportunity to show gratitude to servicemen and servicewomen past and present. Less than 1 percent of Americans put on a uniform each day and serve their country – something that has been ingrained in Woodland for years. His maternal grandfather, Dale Johnston, served in the National Guard in Kansas, and still volunteers one day a week at the Air Museum in Topeka. The maternal grandfather of Gabby Woodland, Gary’s wife, served in the Air Force. It’s natural for the Woodlands to be generous in lending support to the military and military-related causes.
Rooney knows that for the Folds to keep soaring, and to keep breaking barriers, it will take a village. Having the collective power of the PGA of America, PGA TOUR, LPGA and USGA will help the Folds to tell its story and attract more support. (Given Rooney’s Air Force background, the Folds refers to its support group as Wingmen, or Squadron.)
Having TOUR pros onboard such as Gary Woodland or Rickie Fowler, both there from the start, has been key, as well. Woodland and Robert Streb have Folds of Honor emblazoned on their staff bags, and PGA TOUR Champions also has several dedicated pros who are giving of their time and money. Several carry Folds of Honor bags, and are regular participants in the Patriot Cup held annually at Patriot Golf Club in Owasso, Oklahoma. The event was staged for years over Memorial Day, but has swapped its date with Patriot Golf Days, and will be conducted over Labor Day Weekend in September.
“Gary Woodland is our biggest and most visible Folds ambassador on the PGA TOUR, and is a point of light that ties the PGA TOUR, Patriot Golf Days and the Folds together,” Rooney said. “It’s just been an awesome walk with him.
“When he got his TOUR card (in 2008), he called me and said, ‘Hey, can I put Folds on my bag?’ And I was like, ‘Wow.’ That’s who he is. One of the very first things he was thinking about wasn’t about himself; it was, ‘How can I do good in this place, and with the opportunity I have?’ Anyone who knows G-Dub knows that he is just a great human being, and a great patriot, well before he was a U.S. Open champion. We are blessed to have him on the journey, for sure.”
Rooney, who competed professionally for a brief time out of college, and Woodland harbor a high level of respect for each other’s talents. Rooney respects Woodland for his low-key nature and toughness as a competitor. Woodland has high regard for Rooney’s tireless work ethic, and his incredible prowess to get someone’s attention, and persuade wingmen to join his mission.
“He is the most passionate person that I’ve ever met,” Woodland said of Rooney. “He can get you to do anything. He is Captain America, for the most part. He obviously has led, serving three tours in Iraq, and still flies in the Air Force. He is a special person to be around.”
It’s hard to imagine now, but Rooney started the Folds of Honor in a tiny office above his garage in tiny Broken Arrow, a suburb of Tulsa. He got the idea after being on a commercial flight, United 664, to Grand Rapids, Michigan, one rainy and cold spring night in 2006. When the aircraft landed, the pilot announced that the flight was bringing home an American hero. Rooney figured it was the U.S. Army Corporal he had passed while boarding the plane. But the man he had seen was Army Cpl. Brad Bucklin, who was escorting the casket holding his twin, Army Cpl. Brock Bucklin, 7,000 miles home to Grand Rapids, one last time. Cpl. Brock Bucklin had been killed in serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. It was late at night, and passengers had no connecting flights to catch. The pilot asked those onboard to stay seated as the casket was lowered; half the passengers stood up and walked off.
Rooney could see the Bucklin family, which included Brock’s 4-year-old son, Jacob, waiting outside the plane as the rain fell. He knew this boy would never play catch with his dad, or fish or play golf with him. Rooney, today a father to five daughters, had not encountered the dark side of war, and was in tears. He got off the plane and called his wife, Jacqy, saying they needed to do something – anything – that could help ease this family’s pain. Jacob would become the Folds’ very first scholarship recipient.
From a difficult moment, some beautiful things would emerge. A charity, for one, that soon will surpass $200 million in educational scholarships. Rooney acknowledges golf’s poor standing in terms of diversity, and is confident that education can be the best bridge available to equality. Roughly 41 percent of Folds of Honor scholarships have been awarded to minorities. On a personal level, having Woodland become involved with the Folds has sparked a strong relationship between him and Rooney. Rooney has served as a valuable mentor; he even officiated Gary’s marriage to Gabby. (“Being that we are both Kansas grads, we should probably go one sentence at a time,” Rooney joked to Woodland as he fed him his vows.)
“He has been a massive influence in my life,” Woodland said of Rooney. “Over $200 million (raised)? Do you know the amount of scholarships that is? It’s a miracle what he’s done, to be honest.”
Adds Rooney, “There are so many parallels between Gary and I. The guy who wanted to be a basketball player (Woodland initially played hoops for Div. 2 Washburn College) ends up a U.S. Open winner. And a guy who wanted to be a golf pro and fighter pilot ends up the ‘Folds of Honor guy.’
“You just never know where God is going to take you on the walk.”
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