October 2007

Max Stein: Charity's Little Big Man

Author: Paul deVere

Charity Tournament Turns 21
91-year-old founder hands over the reins

When the 21st Hilton Head Mercedes-Benz Golf Tournament gets underway this December, you can be quite sure of four things: the tournament will be sold out; most of the golfers will have played in the tournament before; the winners will eat very well; and the chances of a player driving away in the car if he aces #17 at Harbour Town Golf Links are about 20,000 to 1.

The tournament was started 21 years ago, by then 70-year-old Max Stein, to benefit the Hilton Head Regional Medical Center Auxiliary. Last year, Stein handed off his duties as tournament director to islander Lew Wessel for this year’s event. As for the reason why Stein was stepping down, Wessel laughed and said, “You’ll have to ask Max why, all of a sudden, at the age of 90, he decided that he had been at it long enough.”

“I’m now 91. It was just the right time for me. And Lew is perfect,” Stein said. “Twenty years? It was like a second career. I never thought of it that way,” he recalled, sounding very much younger than someone who has been around for over nine decades and still plays golf about twice a week.

With Harbour Town as the anchor course for 21 years and other area courses participating since the tournament began, it is one of the longest running local charity golf tournaments on the island. It’s also one of the most popular. “We have a rule that we abide by very strictly. Players that have played in the tournament before have preference,” Stein explained. “Some of them have played in all 20.”

Stein remembers a golfer who lived on Hilton Head Island and played in the tournament from the very beginning. He moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, but came back for the tournament. Then he moved to Montreal, but came back to play again. “I think he’s played in all 20,” Stein said.

Then there was the time one of the regulars was in Germany when the tournament invitations went out, and he called Stein. “He was anxious. He told me he couldn’t get the application back right away. He asked me, ‘Is it O.K. if I just tell you now that I’m going to play?’ I told him, ‘Yes, and this is the day you’ll play.’”

Wessel, who has played in five tournaments, said when he got Stein’s invitation, he immediately signed up. “It’s always been my favorite charity event on the island for a number of reasons. It’s at Harbour Town, which I love, and another quality golf course. That’s been a signature of the tournament all along. It’s also a great deal. For $220, you get to play Harbour Town and, this year, Belfair.” In the past, the other courses have included Berkeley Hall, Long Cove, Oldfield and Spring Island—courses usually not available to non-members. “Plus, you get a box lunch, which Piggly Wiggly is providing this year, and two sleeves of tournament logo golf balls, which Hilton Head Regional Medical Center is helping out with,” Wessel said.

Those logo balls are more than just a nice tee gift. If one of them finds the bottom of the cup in a single stroke—a hole in one—on Harbour Town’s famous par 3, #17, the golfer wins a car, thanks to the Hilton Head Mercedes-Benz dealership, the tournament’s name sponsor. “Over the 20 years there have been between 5,000 and 6,000 attempts during our tournaments,” Wessel said. “No one has driven away with a new car yet, but there are stories.”

To give an idea about those chances for an “ace,” according to Golf Digest, the odds are 12,000 to 1 for a good golfer and 20,000 to 1 for a weekend warrior. But you never know.

The format for the tournament is two “best balls” per foursome. That means that golfers can enjoy playing their own ball throughout the tournament. Played over five days, golfers will play at Harbour Town December 6th, 11th and 13th, and at Belfair on December 3rd and 11th. The Island Packet helps promote the event and publishes the scores. “The Island Packet has been very supportive,” Wessel said.

While the chances of winning a car might be a bit of a dream, the winners of each of the nine flights, plus the low gross winner will be rewarded with something much more tangible—a tasty: dinner for eight at one of the Lowrey Group restaurants. “That’s really spectacular,” Wessel said.

Having Harbour Town as the anchor course for the tournament is highly unusual. Cary Corbitt, director of sports for Sea Pines Resort, said, “We don’t actively pursue charity events. We have to accommodate our owners and members. But Max is determined and works very hard. He has been a long time member of Sea Pines and a long time friends of Sea Pines, and a long time friend of mine. He’s just a great guy. He’s amazing. And he loves golf. We’ve enjoyed participating with Max over the years.”

According to Hilton Head Regional Medical Center Auxiliary president, Bill Moss, while the auxiliary is the prime beneficiary of the tournament, some of the funds are used for scholarships. In the past, the Auxiliary has focused on nursing scholarships. But with the new healthcare-related course offerings at the Technical College of the Low Country, the scholarships will be broadened to include x-ray technicians, lab technicians and other specialties. In addition to the scholarships, the Auxiliary helps fund prescription medicine for patients at the hospital who can’t afford it and also contributes funds to the Volunteers in Medicine clinic on the island and the Boys and Girls Club.

“The services we provide are to benefit patients and their families throughout southern Beaufort County,” Moss said. “This tournament means an awful lot to our ongoing funding, and I can’t tell you how much our sponsors mean to us. I feel very privileged to be part of this.” Over the years, the tournament has raised over $450,000.

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