Opening-day back flips. Diving lunges deep in the hole to save a hit. A momentous walk-off homer in the NLCS against the Dodgers. These are the signature moments of Ozzie Smith’s Hall of Fame career that included 13 Gold Gloves and 15 All-Star Game appearances. But he could also turn a perfect pivot on the double play. He still can – figuratively speaking. For nearly eight years, Ozzie has served as president of the Gateway PGA REACH Foundation, the intersection of two campaigns that elevated and solidified the region’s legacy in − of all sports – golf and serves as a model for the rest of the country.
The sports world saw the fruits of the Gateway PGA’s labors in August, when Bellerive Country Club hosted a wildly successful 100th PGA Championship. The event showcased St. Louisans as good sports displaying good sportsmanship towards the world’s best golfers. But long before and long after the tournament, Ozzie was − and will be − there to shepherd the event’s lasting legacy for the underserved in the region.
He took up the game only after his baseball career, to make sure he didn’t embarrass himself in the numerous charity tournaments to which he was invited and ended up with a handicap between 4 and 6. But he also sensed that the sport could offer opportunities to young people, who, like himself, came from underserved areas. Knowing this, members of the Gateway PGA asked if Ozzie could help in a small way, either through an appearance or donation to a fundraiser that would help teach youngsters to play. “He was so moved by the vision for the foundation, he asked if he could be the president,” says Ali Wells, executive director of the Gateway PGA Section. “We weren’t expecting that at all but said, ‘Yes, we’d like that very much.’”
He initially took ownership of the foundation’s annual fundraiser, now called Ozzie & Friends. Attracting the likes of Henry Aaron, Bo Jackson, Ryne Sandberg, Marcus Allen and Eric Dickerson, Ozzie has steered the event, which raises nearly $200,000 annually for programs focused on youth in North St. Louis. Ozzie also attended and assisted at golf clinics for local students and has opened doors to set up programs that have little or nothing to do with golf, offered through Urban K-Life and Big Brothers Big Sisters’ ABC Today, which focuses on students’ attendance, behavior and grades.
He and the foundation were in the right place at the right time, because the PGA was looking for ways to make a lasting impact in its host communities. Representatives of Bellerive and the Gateway PGA, including Ozzie, pitched their concept in 2011, then hosted an evening at the ballpark, where the Cardinals saluted the PGA of America. “The PGA saw how much sports meant to St. Louis and Ozzie meant to St. Louis,” says Ed Glotzbach, president of Bellerive. “They were looking for a sports town. Ozzie orchestrated that evening. He’s a ton of fun to be with but he’s deadly serious about making a difference. I think it really mattered in our bid.” As a result of gaining the bid, PGA REACH was formed out of the Gateway PGA Foundation in 2011.
“His name opens a lot of doors, but Ozzie’s not that kind of guy. He’s all in,” says Mike DeCola, chairman of the 2018 PGA Championship. Ozzie attended board meetings, offering input and suggestions. He appeared in every public service announcement and at every media event for the tournament. “His presence got people to pay attention when they might not otherwise.” As the event drew nearer, Glotzbach said, “the PGA of America was so enamored with Ozzie’s passion for sports, St. Louis and the outreach program, they came up with the idea of a Host Champion,” a first for the PGA Championship. Among his duties was delivering to Bellerive the Wanamaker Trophy, awarded to the tournament winner, atop the Budweiser Clydesdales.
“It was moving that Ozzie was at the center of that image displayed on an international stage that tied together all the elements that the community and foundation had united,” Wells says. The scene before and after revealed just as much. The hitch was being set up across the street from Bellerive, where buses dropped off fans, who, of course spotted Ozzie. “And, of course he took the time to sign hundreds of autographs,” DeCola says. After the event, DeCola estimates, Ozzie hung around for an hour and a half to sign hundreds more. “He adds a feeling of genuine caring and approachability and represents us incredibly well.”
Ozzie set the standard for future Host Champions, and the tremendous golf and golfers left their mark on St. Louis and Bellerive. But far more indelible is the lasting impact of PGA REACH. The program Ozzie has helped guide has been adopted by the PGA nationwide. Its scope has expanded beyond youngsters to include veterans, in a program called PGA Hope, and to build a more diverse workforce through the PGA Works Fellowship. “He’ll continue to be president of the foundation as long as he wants to be involved,” Wells said. “He’s at the center of a legacy that both represents St. Louis and extends beyond our borders.”