Clay Walker has a great golf swing, platinum records and a crippling disease. What he’s doing with them would make Bing Crosby proud.
Thursday, February 7, 2013
Things got real interesting – and flat-out real – for Clay Walker in 1996.
He completed his fourth album.
He welcomed his first child into the world.
He watched his fifth single hit number one.
And he received a death sentence.
The slang name for the verdict, Walker says: “Diagnose and adios.”
Seems multiple sclerosis and its brain stem scarring didn’t portend much longevity.
“Four years till you’re in a wheelchair,” Walker’s neurosurgeon told him. “Eight until you’re in the grave.”
Forgive Walker, then 26, if he kept his own schedule.
Now 43, he’s walking around, riding horses and playing a lot of golf. He hasn’t missed a single concert since diagnosis – despite a cross-continental touring schedule that totals 1,700 shows since. He’s collected top new male vocalist nods, released 11 albums, stacked 11 million in record sales and collected a suitcase of platinum and gold records.
Of late, he has deepened and diversified his creative undertakings, appearing with Rachel Ray and Martha Stewart and performing on The Bachelor. He also canvasses the country hosting Trophy Hunters on the Outdoor Channel, and finds the time to sow a 200-acre organic flower-and-vegetable farm and run an 800-acre cattle ranch.
But even as he ranches in Texas, farms in Tennessee and tours behind his music and TV shows from Canada to South Carolina, much of his most meaningful work happens in Pebble Beach. His Clay Walker Charity Golf Classic – part of an effort to rally Congress, the country music industry, his national fan base and a small army of powerful friends to confront M.S. – teed up its fifth year last summer.
Pebble Beach Company Vice President of Golf R.J. Harper, who met Walker when the former high school quarterback was an opener drinking beer on George Strait’s tour bus, is one of those friends. He’s also co-conductor of the June tourney – which included screen star Anthony Anderson, music producer T-Bone Burnett and former NBA star John Starks in 2012 – and a board member with Walker’s Band Against Multiple Sclerosis 501(c)(3).
“It’s risky to identify with a negative,” Harper says. “Clay’s turned it into a positive. I tell him about someone with M.S., and the next thing they know he’s calling them, giving counsel and hope. Underline hope.”
Walker doesn’t have to make M.S. his personal crest. Similarly, he doesn’t have to perform religiously at the Pro-Am’s volunteer thank you night the Wednesday before the AT&T. The most loyal amateurs eventually take a year off.
“Everybody who fills a celebrity spot is a special person,” Harper says, “But Clay, his motor runs faster and harder. I’m amazed at the drive, imagination and energy.”
And those shows apparently weren’t enough for Walker. In 2000 he threw a free concert at Monterey County Fairgrounds as a thank you for U.S. Open volunteers. More than a decade back, after tournament chiefs asked if he’d help out with a brief appearance in the volunteer tent after play on Friday, he promptly started flying out his band and recruiting celebs to appear with him.
Assistant Tournament Director Margo Daniels saw a few of those shows as she spent 30 years in volunteer hospitality.
“I’ve never met another person in the entertainment world who has the heart he does,” she says.
“His band goes up for an hour and half,” Harper adds. “Food, airfare and salary – on his dime.”
The volunteers, in turn, are the engine behind the Pro-Am parent Monterey Peninsula Foundation’s push to raise nearly $10 million last year alone. That jump-starts dozens of local nonprofits, ranging from Meals on Wheels to Monterey Museum of Art.
Walker finds more than fairways in that.
“The competition is nice,” he says, “but what feels good is the company and presence among golfers, the fans on the Peninsula and the people involved. Call it tribal. You have this huge spiritual connection.”
The fact a man with a microphone started it all makes it even more magic, he continues.
“Being an entertainer, I’m partial to entertainers,” he says, smiling at the thought of the founder who hatched the National Pro-Am Golf Championship, commonly known as the Crosby Clambake, in 1937. “It’s such a wonderful legacy that an entertainer started this. I have pride in my voice when I say that.”
Fittingly enough, when he started his tournament he got advice from Bing Crosby buddy Jackie Burke, Jr., the godfather of Bing’s son Nathaniel and owner of Champions Golf Course in Houston.
“He and I have talked about it at length,” Walker says. “He told me, ‘Son, start small and build it. That’s what Bing did.’”
Pebble and Walker just inked a deal for an extension of the tournament, which thrives on unscripted moments as much as the AT&T. Walker and Harper share the same favorite spot of spontaneity from 2012: Superpower producer Burnett jumped on stage at the classic’s gala dinner and held a guitar high above his 6-foot-7-inch frame and plucked it blind.
“He sounded so good I was shocked,” Walker says. “He didn’t hesitate, no sound check, jumped up and brought this electricity to the tournament.”
Anyone who’s seen Walker in concert knows he’s well-qualified to identify electricity. With Walker, though, it’s not something reserved for his live shows. It’s something that shows in how he lives.