Autism awareness drives Kresge, family

Cliff Kresge

Cliff Kresge

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Journeyman pro Cliff Kresge has been mired in a golfer’s version of No Man’s Land this season. Possessing only partial status on the PGA Tour after finishing 149th on last year’s money list, he’s made only 13 starts with the big boys this season. This week Kresge is in Boise, Idaho, playing in his 10th Nationwide Tour event of the season.

As a part-timer on two tours, he hasn’t been able to gain much traction on either.

“My hope,” he said, “is to get a couple of starts in the (PGA Tour’s) Fall Finish. Maybe then I can do something really special.”

Truth be known, he already is.

On Sept. 26-27, Kresge will conduct the second annual Kresge’s Krew Tournament at Ridgefield Country Club in Kingsport, Tenn, where pros Ernie Els, Ted Purdy, Steve Marino, Chris Stroud and Mark Wilson and country musician Pat Green are among those planning to join him. There is a reception, dinner and silent auction Sept. 26, followed by a skills clinic and Texas Scramble the next morning. Kresge’s mission is to raise awareness – and funds – for something near and dear to his heart: Treating autism.

Kresge’s son, Mason, was diagnosed with autism shortly before he turned 3. Cliff said he’d noticed Mason wasn’t progressing quite at the speed as other young children his age. He wasn’t making typical baby noises and he wasn’t speaking. He had a difficult time making eye contact. And Mason would experience “breakdowns” because of mounting frustration over not being able to adequately communicate.

“When he was diagnosed (as autistic), they tell you the absolute worst,” said Kresge, who turns 42 next month. Kresge was told his son wouldn’t be able to show affection, and that his motor skills wouldn’t be normal. As Mason’s life has played out, his doctor’s stark prognostication has not matched reality.

“Mason is 10 now, and he speaks very, very good,” Kresge said. “He’s in fifth grade, he’s in a public school, and he has some solid buddies he hangs out with who help him out. His comprehension ... he’s so literal. Everything is black and white, nothing in between. That’s hard.

“But he’s got his actions under control. It’s a blessing. He’s a special kid, and he really cares about people. He never wants to see anyone else upset.”

Cliff and his wife, Judy, would learn along the way that their road is one not traveled alone, and that there is excellent help available to families dealing with autism. Mason had great success with Applied Behavior Analysis, or ABA. Kresge, who lives a life of privilege as a professional golfer on the greatest tour in the world, was bothered knowing that every child with autism isn’t guaranteed a similar opportunity. Thus his creation of a charity golf tournament, to raise funds that can significantly impact several programs in need of support.

“Cliff was here recently speaking to the local Rotary group, and when he started telling stories about Mason, sharing his experiences, it’s clear those stories come straight from the heart,” said Frank Lett, the Kresge Krew’s tournament director. “A lot of athletes help out with different causes, but this is one Cliff is very close to.”

The Kresge Krew tournament is played in east Tennessee because that’s where Judy is from. Last year, Kresge started by getting a commitment from Els, who disclosed more than two years ago that his son, Ben, is autistic and has become very active in raising awareness about the disorder, running his own charity event. For his first event, Kresge also landed musician Vince Gill. With a start like that, he says with a laugh, filling in the rest with his golf buddies was pretty easy. The inaugural event raised about $100,000.

Monies raised this year will be allocated to the Autism Society of America; the Breakthrough Corp., a Tennessee-based non-profit which is building residential communities with support services for children with autism as they grow to be adults; and Appalachian Behavior Support Services in Johnson City, Tenn., which helps provide ABA treatment for youths with autism spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities.

photo

Cliff and Mason Kresge

“Mason had some of his greatest success with ABA, and I didn’t want kids who might not be able to afford it to not be able to go,” Kresge said.

The bright spotlight his fellow golfer Els has shined on autism has been a gift, Kresge said. Els and his wife, Liezl, relocated to West Palm Beach, Fla., so that Ben can receive more intensive therapy. Kresge said he has shared some good talks with the Big Easy, who last year brought fellow Tour pros Will MacKenzie and Steve Marino with him to Tennessee in his private jet. Kresge was to reciprocate by playing Els’ fundraising tournament in South Florida this March, but missed the event when rains pushed the Puerto Rico Open to a Monday finish.

“Judy and I used to talk all the time thinking about ways to get the word out about autism, and Ernie has been great with that,” Kresge said. “He kept it to himself for a long, long time, and I know it really affected his golf. He’s 100 percent behind us.”

Having watched Mason blossom has allowed Kresge to keep a level approach to his golf. After years battling to earn or keep a PGA Tour card, he broke through in 2007-08, making nearly $2 million in earnings. Still, it’s just golf. He was tied for second through two rounds in Utah last week, hit the ball roughly the same on the weekend and tied for 40th.

“I’m just waiting for a good bounce here or there,” he said.

Mason seldom travels with him on the road, as it helps Mason to stay in routine and keep things the same day-to-day when he is home. When Dad gets off the road and gets home to the Orlando area, his time is spent 24/7 around his son. He would not have it any other way.

“My message with an event like this is that autism isn’t some sort of death sentence – autism is something you can function with if you get the proper help,” Kresge said. “I’ve learned to appreciate what I have in my life, because I’ve learned some kids don’t have a choice in how their lives go.”

It pleases Kresge to know the lives of more than 60 children were affected by his efforts in Tennessee last year. He is hopeful even more will be touched in Year 2.

“We don’t really have a goal (money-wise),” he said. “Judy and I are just trying to do as much as we can.”

And quietly and steadily, doing a pretty nice job of that.

(For more information about the tournament, or to donate, visit KresgesKrew.com)

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