Why three-time Tour winner Cameron Champ’s biggest victory has been off the course

By Adam Schupak

NAPA, Calif. – My goosebumps had goosebumps as I watched Cameron Champ win the 2019 Safeway Open (now known as the Fortinet Championship) at the Silverado Resort & Spa’s North Course. Champ, who grew up 60 miles away in Sacramento, played with a heavy heart as his Grandpa, Mack Champ, watched from the family home. “Pops,” as Cameron affectionately called him, had entered hospice for Stage IV stomach cancer, and died shortly thereafter.

It was Mack who bought Cam and his sister Madison their first sets of plastic clubs. (Madison is on the autism spectrum, which is why Cameron typically wears a baby-blue shirt on Sunday, the color of autism awareness.) Cameron was 2 ½ at the time he first wrapped his hands around a club, and it wasn’t long before Mack started taking his grandson to Foothill Golf Course in Sacramento. For $200 a year, Cameron could play as much golf as he wanted.

“After school we would go play as many holes as we could,” he recalled. “I still remember the push carts they had to the little snack shack they had.”

Two years ago, I was standing by the 18th green at the Safeway Open next to Champ’s father, Jeff, who held his cell phone in his left hand so Pops could hear the applause rain down from the crowd as Cameron wrapped up his second of now three PGA Tour titles. Jeff gritted his teeth, tightened every muscle in his body and attempted, by sheer will, to force the tears back into their ducts. But it was already too late. His long embrace on the green with his son reminded me of Tiger Woods hugging caddie Steve Williams and losing it on his shoulder at the British Open after Woods’s father had passed away in 2006. Just as on that day, there weren’t many dry eyes among those who witnessed this scene.

Champ is living to make Grandpa Mack proud and that means being a winner in his community. At 24, he launched his own foundation to give back and chose Foothill Golf Course, a par-3 course measuring 1,203 yards, as his initial project to give young people a safe haven to play and learn.

“We’ve been thinking about this since I was a kid,” Cameron told me at the time.

The foundation has a simple goal: to establish and promote youth mentorship and golf programs that foster an environment for academic achievement and healthy living for children from underserved and disadvantaged communities.

“We believe sport speaks to youth in a language they understand and when coupled with access to a safe and nurturing place to ‘play,’ sport can be a tool for positive change,” the Foundation’s boiler plate reads. “We believe in the power of education — that access to learning beyond-the-classroom (K-12) and access to college will unlock the potential in every child and significantly improve the odds of lifelong success. We believe in the power of mentoring – providing access to mentors not only helps the children today but creates learned behaviors that will enable children to make the world a better place. When this all comes together, we will fuel the dreams of the children we touch. Come walk with us!”

It’s a powerful message and one that got a huge lift on Monday when the Fortinet Championship, the inaugural event of the 2021-22 season and a new Tour partner, stepped up on Monday to support Champ with his family’s vision – it’s truly a family affair at the Cameron Champ Foundation – with The Walk with Us Cameron Champ Foundation Pro-Am, benefiting the Foundation in support of programs for underserved and underrepresented children in the Bay Area.

“It’s kind of like a dream,” Champ said. “It’s something that again we’re going to keep pushing as hard as we can in order for that dream to become a reality.”

Champ, who got his first taste of playing at Silverado in a junior all-stars competition and had Pops on the bag when he played The First Tee Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links and Poppy Hills Golf Course, also created the Mack Champ Invitational, a junior golf tournament, in Houston. He knows he’s stood on many shoulders and accepted many helping hands to get to where he is and he wants to pay it forward.

Since acquiring the management contract at Foothill in June 2019, he has set out to make it a place where children can learn not only to play golf but also get a healthy snack, help with their homework and just be kids. COVID-19 delayed some of the improvement measures they outlined, but he said, “everything is going in the proper directions that we want it to.”

“What Cameron and his dad are going to do is create opportunities,” Mack told Golf.com a year before he died. “There are kids in gangs, kids with no hope, and we want to try to get them into golf. Cameron knows if people didn’t give to him, he wouldn’t be where he is.”

That’s why he called yesterday’s fundraiser, “a huge steppingstone for us.”

“We’re trying to make a difference in as many ways as we can,” he added. “Obviously I’m only one person, my family’s only one family, my board is only one board, so we can only do as much as we can, but with the resources and with the people we have that are in support of us, we’re going to do everything we possibly can to help the kids, especially in my hometown.”

It is a victory that trumps all the trophies that have begun to pile up at home and likely all of the ones still to come.


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