By Rick Woelfel
Few who have followed Cristie Kerr's career would question her passion or competitive desire. The 16-year LPGA veteran is just as passionate when she's taking on breast cancer.
This past Monday Kerr hosted the eighth annual Birdies for Breast Cancer Celebrity Golf Classic at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, N.J.
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Twenty-two other professionals participated, among them LPGA Hall of Famer Juli Inkster and 2007 Kraft Nabisco champion Morgan Pressel, along with Natalie Gulbis, Cindy LaCrosse, Lizette Salas, and Alison Walshe, to name a few.
The professionals were joined by a field of amateurs and special guests that featured former U.S, Open and Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin, former baseball great Rick Cerone, and hockey luminaries Rod Gilbert, Marty Turco, and Jeremy Roenick, among others.
The golf outing, along with an accompanying silent auction and other activities, was expected to raise some $400,000 for the fight against breast cancer. The bulk of those funds were earmarked for the Cristie Kerr Women's Health Center at the New Jersey Medical Center in Jersey City.
Kerr has seen the impact of the disease up close; her mother is a breast cancer survivor, having been diagnosed in 2003. She was 62 at the time but the disease is becoming more prevalent among younger women.
Kerr, who will turn 35 on October 12th, is committed to reaching out to women in their 20s and 30s by encouraging them to do regular self-examinations and get regular checkups.
"I think that's incredibly important," she says. "The only reason my mother is alive is because of early detection. She was diagnosed in her 60s but I've got three very good friends in their 30s that have all tested positive for the gene and had to undergo mastectomies.
It's a real serious disease. We need to keep spreading the word and the only way we're going to do that is not only by reaching out to people in the demographic that it touches, but also by getting the message out to younger women and really spreading the message that early detection is the key. Early detection means when you're in your 20s you start to monitor and do breast health exams."
A number of the professionals who joined Kerr on Monday have had family members affected by the disease.
LPGA player Irene Cho says playing in the Birdies for Breast Cancer event is an inspirational experience. " Cristie is such a big influence on our tour as a role model," she says, "especially my role model, Just to see her giving back like this is truly remarkable and I'm very honored just to be a part of this experience."
Cho has seen cancer-induced devastation up close. A friend is struggling with breast cancer and she also lost an uncle to prostate cancer.
"Anything we can do to give back and help out with any charity is kind of a big plus in the life of a professional golfer," she says. "Thank God I'm healthy right now and thank God I'm able to play the sport that I love."
Mallory Blackwelder played in the event for the second time on Monday. She had the opportunity to play with her mother, former LPGA Tour player Myra Blackwelder, who coached Mallory at the University of Kentucky.
"I think probably all of us have had someone in our family, or someone that we're friends with affected by it," Mallory says. "My grandmother actually passed away from breast cancer so it definitely hits close to home. It's just a great cause. The work that Cristie does for the women here is just awesome."
The Cristie Kerr Women's Health Care Center was established in Jersey City in part because one of Kerr's sponsors owns Liberty National Golf Club and because there are Liberty National members on the board of the New Jersey Medical Center. Kerr herself lives in the area for several months out of the year.
Since opening some 20 months ago the center has provided more than 15,000 breast examinations, which works out to an average of 25 per day, seven days a week. Services are provided without regard to a client's ability to pay.
"To my knowledge, we're one of the few places, if not the only place that does that," Kerr says. "I think (the statistics) show the need for it and also our ability to provide for that need.
"And it's hard because it's all private funding that runs our center. If people don't donate it hurts our ability to do more exams. And that's what we're all about.
"The center really is a beacon for women. Men get breast cancer as well but it really is a beacon, mostly for women. They can come here and know that it's going to be all right. It's going to be okay."
Sadly, it appears there will be a need for Birdies for Breast Cancer and events like it for the foreseeable future. According to the National Cancer Institute, one in eight American women will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in their lives, a statistic that inspires Walshe to do what she can to educate people about the disease and help raise funds to find ways to prevent it.
"The fact that we can come out here as golfers and go do our job and in a sense, also be helping out its really fulfilling," she says.
"I learned so much be participating in things like this. I've known people that have gotten it at 18 years old and the word's not out.
"Events like this hopefully reach out to those girls and show them how important it is, that you need to get checked and screened and whatnot at an earlier age than you think. As horrible as it is, it's spreading, it's becoming a more prominent disease and things like this will hopefully give people the awareness that they need."
• LPGA Tour veteran Wendy Doolan received the event's Courage Award. Doolan was diagnosed with breast cancer in June of 2009.
"Since then she's been just hellacious about getting the word out," Kerr says. "Not only by coming to our event, but by going to other events as well to help support breast cancer-research. She's also on the Internet blogging and doing different things."
Thanks to early detection Doolin was able to return to competitive golf but announced her retirement this summer; the 2012 Evian Masters brought down the curtain on her 16-year professional career.
"Birdies for Breast Cancer is an amazing foundation," Doolan says. "It's giving so many women an opportunity to get tested. We love Cristie and we're just happy to help in whatever way we can."
Sarah Jane Smith