Celebrities, Children’s patients highlight special day at Regions Pro-Am

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

HOOVER – The Regions Tradition brings a lot of excitement to Shelby County every year, and the Wednesday of the tournament has become one of the more exciting events each time the PGA Tour Champions rolls through Greystone Golf and Country Club with some of the biggest names from college football and celebrities from all over playing in the Pro-Am.

And on May 8, the excitement was no different as fans got the experience of getting up close to their favorite college football coach as well as some of the more famous players from schools like Alabama and Auburn.

While it breaks down the barrier between fan and coach, it’s also a day that focuses on much more than the celebrities in attendance.

One of the biggest focuses of the entire week is the donation to Children’s Hospital, which has always played an important role in making the tournament what it has become, and this year, a new tradition made it even more special.

There were a total of 12 different Children’s patients that got to join each group of players as a Regions Tradition Pro-Am Ambassador.

Gabby Bolden, Zach Byars, Richlyn Carter, Harmony Cooper, Ava Kate Hollingsworth, Rick Hood, Kaileb McIntyre, Ben Golden Peterson, Emmy Rains, Desi Roney, Stefani Swindle and Rollins Wilkerson were the 12 kids getting to join the professionals and celebrities and range in age between 3 and 17.

That’s something that makes this event so special to so many, including University of Georgia head football coach Kirby Smart.

“This is an awesome event,” Smart said. “Children’s has meant so much to so many families, including my own.”

The reason it means so much to Smart is because of the battle his brother had growing up. Spending his childhood with Leukemia, Smart’s brother was forced into a difficult time at a young age.

“Growing up in a tough situation with my brother, having to go in and out of hospitals, every time I meet one of these patients it means a lot to me because you’re able to give back and represent our great university,” Smart said.

It was fitting that Smart was paired with 12-year-old Rollins Wilkerson of Mountain Brook, who went through two years of chemotherapy at Children’s of Alabama after being diagnosed with acute lymphatic leukemia at age 2. In 2010, she was declared cancer free in 2010.

Others were battling diseases such as Crohn’s disease, heart conditions needing transplants, sickle cell, lymphatic malformations, a liver transplant, kidney cancer, a cancerous brain tumor, cystic fibrosis and subglottic stenosis.

Each of those diseases has affected kids at such a young age, but the Regions Tradition Pro-Am gives them a sign of hope, excitement and more than anything a chance to enjoy a normal day with some people that can shine light on what they have gone through.

It’s one of the main reasons so many celebrities make their way to the event, even Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who was just a couple weeks removed from hip surgery and couldn’t even play in the event.

“I love playing golf, but I like also to support the event,” Saban said. “I have mixed emotions about not playing, but I’m just glad to be here for the event.”

That’s one of the big reasons Bruce Pearl decided to return to the tournament after taking last year off.

“It’s a great cause to play for, and I always look forward to seeing the guys who know how to swing,” Pearl said with a chuckle.

With the special cause, also comes a ton of fun, as several big names were in attendance. While coaches like Pearl, Smart, Saban, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn and Ole Miss’s Matt Luke were in attendance, so were other former players and famous names.

Tommy Tubberville, former Braves outfielder Gary Sheffield, Greg McElroy, Jay Barker, John Parker Wilson, Stan White, Brandon Cox, Greg Byrne, Rick and Bubba’s Bubba Bussey, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, Widespread Panic’s John Bell, Fox Sports’ Clay Travis and American Idol’s Taylor Hicks were all in attendance.

With so many big names playing in the tournament, fun was had and jabs were thrown.

Talking about Saban’s quick recovery from his hip surgery, Smart said he wasn’t surprised that Saban was back at work two days later.

“I was honestly disappointed it wasn’t one day later,” Smart said with a laugh.

Saban said he loves the game of golf and misses being able to play right now, but it’s giving him more time to work.

“I’m focusing on work,” Saban said. “I work all the time, and golf just a minimum amount of time. It’s a big recruiting time right now, evaluations of the spring, next year’s opponents. It’s actually given me more time to do those things because I can’t go out and play golf.”

Saban has still been chipping and putting in his spare time, and says he’ll start taking half swings soon.

Smart, however, was able to play, but wasn’t too confident in his game.

“I’ve played four rounds since the end of the season, so this will be my fifth,” Smart said. “I haven’t played my own ball but maybe one or two rounds, which means I have to hit the bad shots the second time so I’m a little worried. I wish I was scrambling today, but it’s not that way.”

For Malzahn and Pearl, neither sounded too confident in shooting low round either.

“Neither one of us are very good, but he’s a lot more entertaining,” Malzahn said of he and Pearl. “He’s a lot more fun to play with, so I’d probably give him the advantage.”

And Pearl’s entertainment was displayed when he came close to making a long putt from just off the ninth green. After the putt, Pearl turned to the crowd and said “That reminds me of the Virginia game,” holding up his right thumb and index finger to show just how close he was to making the putt and winning the Final Four game.

There was also a big goalpost out in the middle of the driving range for the players and celebrities to take their shot at splitting the upright, but Malzahn had just one concern before even seeing it.

“If it’s not very far I’m OK, but if it’s a little further out, that’s when I’ll get in trouble,” Malzahn said.

On his first shot from the range, he went just left of the upright, before letting out a smile.

He then took to the course and spent the rest of the day trying to split fairways with everyone else.

It marked a special day for celebrities, professionals and fans alike to celebrate a special cause before four days of the first PGA Tour Champions major of the year get underway.