Schupak: Spreading the gospel of golf in Israel

On the Arn and Nancy Tellem Mission to Israel: (from left) Chris Armstrong, Wasserman Media Group; Sean Foley; Kandi Mahan and Hunter Mahan.

JERUSALEM – Shalom! I’ve arrived in the Holy Land to chronicle the story of the Arn and Nancy Tellem Mission to Israel.

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Haas Promenade at Armon HaNatziv, overlooking the golden city of Jerusalem.

I dozed fitfully through much of the 10-hour El Al Airlines overnight flight from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York until the cabin lights blazed on and a flight attendant shoved a warm bagel and omelette in front of my face. By the way, the passenger next to me was a dead ringer for Robert Karlsson. But I digress.

Sleep will be in short supply on the trip, spanning from Nov. 11-20, as World Golf Hall of Fame member Amy Alcott, PGA Tour players Hunter Mahan and Michael Thompson and instructor Sean Foley will be spreading the gospel of golf here.

Golf in Israel? Yeah, I know what you are thinking. It’s not exactly a haven of the game. The country has one 18-hole course, Caesarea Golf Club, which opened in 1961 and was renovated by Pete Dye beginning in 2007.

Israel is a place I’ve always wanted to visit. I’ll give you the quick back story on how I became involved. It was a year ago at this time that I sat next to Foley on a shuttle ride back to the parking lot at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic. I tried to make some small talk. Would he be going to Tiger’s tournament, I asked? He told me he wouldn’t because he was scheduled to participate in a goodwill tour of Israel with Mahan, one of his other students. I was intrigued. But the trip was postponed. (A smaller group that featured Morgan Pressel and younger sister Madison still did go.) Tellem is one of the movers and shakers in the basketball world and the NBA was in the thick of its lockout. So fast-forward to the Masters in April, where I spotted Wasserman agents Malcolm Turner and Chris Armstrong near the famous tree. I inquired whether the trip was back on for this year and by October I had my answer. Here I am.

Israel is approximately the size of the state of New Jersey, or as Gideon Meir, head of the Foreign Ministry’s public affairs directorate, put it: “too small to fit the letters Israel on a map.” The group will spend time in Isreal’s two largest cities -- Tel Aviv and Jerusalem – and take a number of day trips, including to the Golan Heights.

Sports can be a powerful tool to open dialogue and lead to better understanding. With that hope in mind, the pros will host golf clinics with locals, Palestinian and Israeli youth as well as war veterans. Former NBA basketball players Will Perdue and Brian Scalabrine are participating in basketball clinics through Peace Players and Seeds of Peace.

The mission to Israel is part work, part vacation for the athletes. As Foley explained it, for the last seven years he’s jetted around the world to golf tournaments going from the course to the hotel to a restaurant – rinse and repeat. It doesn’t leave much time for sightseeing. A theology major in college, Foley is excited to experience the history he studied in books.

Foley, Mahan and Thompson have all brought their wives along for the adventure. There will be more than just golf and basketball clinics. The itinerary is packed with social and cultural events. One night, we are scheduled to have dinner with former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Day tours will include visits to the Western Wall, Yad Vashem, Masada, and the Dead Sea. The trip, co-sponsored by Jewish National Fund and Media Watch International, presents Israel’s past and present and the challenges the country faces today.

“You will meet a true cross section of Israeli society,” promised Sharon Tzur, executive director of Media Watch International.

For a little pre-trip advice, I called Oren Geri, the reigning Israeli Open champ, who is still chasing the dream and lives near Orlando, Fla. You may know him from the TV show The Big Break. He swelled with pride while speaking of his homeland. This is how he summed up the trip ahead of me:

“You’re going to eat delicious food, visit sites from a variety of historical periods and experience an active nightlife.”

He took a pregnant pause and added, “Other than that it’s going to suck.”

I laughed.

I also spoke with Laetitia Beck, Israel’s most promising young golfer who is currently a member of the Duke University women’s golf team. She grew up walking distance from the sixth hole at Caesarea and she offered her perspective on what it will mean to have pros giving clinics to the young golfers at her home course.

“We don’t often see great players,” Beck said.

Both Beck and Geri have ambitions of representing their country when golf returns to the Olympics in 2016. In the days ahead, there will be more time to discuss that. Check back each day for new postings and images from Israel.

This week has the potential to open many eyes, change views about the game, and perhaps inspire the next generation of golfers in Israel.

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