RYE, N.Y. – Rye’s Susan Murray remembers the early years of a golf fundraiser she and her husband, Kevin, started to support autism research and education. After 16 years, the Autism Speaks Celebrity Golf Challenge at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck comes off without a hitch, but that was not the case early on.
“There were blackouts and brownouts all over Westchester County that first year,’’ said Murray, who is currently working with her husband and volunteers to put plans together for the 16th annual event at Winged Foot Golf Club for Monday, June 16. “Despite our inexperience and weather that first day, it still turned out to be very successful and we raised about $500,000. We truly had no idea how to run an event like this but with the outpouring of wonderful support we were able to bring in the numbers we did that day and have an amazing time doing it. It was the start of something great.”
The tournament is now one of the most successful charity golf events in the region and has raised nearly $14 million during its run. Originally started before Autism Speaks became a national organization, the proceeds from early tournaments were distributed to other groups that supported autism awareness and research.
“I think every year we’re amazed,’’ said Murray, whose 21-year-old son, Owen, has autism. “I’ve definitely seen a big difference in awareness. When we first started, not many people knew or understood what autism was. Through the golf tournament, we’ve been able to not only generate funds for much needed research, but to also raise awareness, and focus on family services, grants and housing among so many other things. To date the National Institute of Health (NIH) only spends less than one percent of their funding on autism research. We still have a long way to go.”
The Murrays created the golf tournament after Owen was diagnosed with autism at 18 months. Kevin played frequently in other charity golf tournaments.
“We thought it was time to focus on something that’s affecting our immediate family,’’ Susan said. “We told the autism groups at the time that we’d love to fundraise for them, but I don’t think they really knew what we meant. We were told by one of the autism organizations that the funds we raised that first year was the most raised in one singular event for autism. As proud and happy as I was, Kevin and I knew that we needed to do more. His goal was $1 million the next year. I thought he was delusional, but he proved me wrong and we raised just over that the following year.”
Murray said the event “was very grass roots in how it started and was embraced by the community from the onset.” And now with the incident rate of 1 in 68 births, the need to raise funds is vital.
The day begins at 10 a.m. with golfer registration. The shotgun start for the tournament begins at noon. Cocktail hour begins at 6 p.m. followed by dinner at 7:15.
The tournament is played at Winged Foot, the site of many United States Golf Association championships and other top tier tournaments. Celebrities who have played in past years include Brooklyn Decker, Eli Manning, Boomer Esiason, Chris O’Donnell, Kevin Dillon, Molly Simms, Jesse Palmer, John Starks and Donald Trump. More information and registration about the tournament is available on the event website.
About 70 to 100 volunteers help the Murray family run the tournament, and most of them have been doing so for years. The event has evolved throughout its history, but the personal touch and fun atmosphere are tournament staples.
“For a lot of people that come, it's like a reunion, Murray said. “It feels very much like family at this point. And every year we see new faces which is wonderful as well. As far as the volunteers, most of the women that come to help out don’t even have children on the autism spectrum, and that truly impresses me. They come year after year because they care and because they want to help be a part of the change. I am so incredibly touched by this. It has been amazing to be a part of this.”