During each of the LPGA's five major championships, espnW will chat with a past champion and see what she's up to now. This is the first in that series.
Betsy King had just finished a little practice when we caught up with her on her cellphone. As usual, life was moving fast.
She had played in the Walgreens Charity Classic -- a Legends Tour event -- the week before and was polishing up her game. Stacy Lewis was heading into town to stay with King during the week of the JTBC Founders Cup, and King was ironing out all the final details for her big Monday event -- the first of her two annual pro-am fundraisers for Golf Fore Africa. Last year, they cleared $175,000 on the Scottsdale Pro-Am alone.
Wasn't it just yesterday that King was in her prime and her rock-solid game was carrying her to 34 wins and six majors, including two U.S. Women's Opens and three wins in the Nabisco Dinah Shore (now the ANA Inspiration)?
It's hard to imagine that the Hall of Famer is just five months shy of 60. She had knee replacement surgery in January 2014 and didn't pick up a club for seven months, but that didn't stop her from pushing hard toward her other passion -- Golf Fore Africa.
King founded Golf Fore Africa in 2007 and, in partnership with World Vision, has promoted a clean-water initiative, helped build a medical clinic and a school addition, and worked with the educational backpack and HIV/AIDS caregivers programs. Eight years later, it drives her as much as golf did.
espnW: You have always been involved in giving back. What drives that?
Betsy King: We did some Habitat builds on tour in the early '90s. I've found it to be great. It gives you great perspective on things. ... I've had the opportunity to get involved in different charity efforts and you get outside yourself. And to be honest, I think it helped me to play better. I wasn't so self-centered; it gave me a cause to play well for. And I knew the better I played, the more money I could donate to various causes. It became an extra incentive to do well.
espnW: What inspired you to start Golf Fore Africa?
BK: In 2005, I went to Honduras with World Vision and I saw how they worked. I really liked the idea that they hire as many local people as they can, and that way they know the language and know the culture. It just makes so much sense to me. It's not like they bring a big group of foreigners over there to do everything. And yet there is a lot of accountability and the money gets to where it is supposed to go.
In '06, I called World Vision and told them I'd been reading about Africa and I'd like to do something there. They said you should go on a trip. They had invited a group of women to go to Africa, to see the poverty and HIV/AIDS. There were 12 of us on that trip, and each woman on that trip has come back and done something.
For me, well, I've been in the golf community and I've done things to raise money there, and I have a good friend who went with me -- Debbie Quesada -- and she is now our executive director. She was working at the time, started volunteering for Golf Fore Africa, and now it's a full-time job. Other than that, we're all volunteers and the office is in my house.
espnW: You take two trips each year to Africa. Tell us about them.
Last year we went in September and December. The first trip this year is in May with eight women. Each woman on the trip has funded a well, which is $15,000 just to do the well. It's a full program that World Vision sets up -- sanitation, hygiene education -- and they put savings programs around it. It's very transforming for a village.
It's usually in a rural area where they are living without electricity and no indoor plumbing, and just to have a well in the village instead of having to walk to water, which is often an unsafe source -- in Zambia last December, they were in a real drought. Normally their rainy season had started by then, so one of the villages took us to where they normally get the water and it was just mud. We asked how they got the water and they said, "Well, we just dig down in the mud." So they were very happy to have received the well.
espnW: You say clean water transforms the people and life in these villages?
BK: It is just life-changing to go there and see what the people are living with, and when you bring something simple like clean water it does so much more than what I had anticipated. You think of health, No. 1, but secondly, it means girls get an education because girls are often the ones who have to walk and get the water. So if you have a water source that's close by, now they can go to school.
It improves the economic status of the village because they can use the water for their gardens. Most of the people eat their own food, but now they have a little extra left over that they take to market and sell, and now they have a little bit more money to spend on themselves and they have a little bit more time. It seems very simple, but it makes such a difference. And they're very proud.
espnW: And you focus on the women in the villages?
BK: Yes. It's interesting that most of the NGOs -- non-governmental organizations -- that do work in Africa all say if you change the life of a woman, that's what changes the life of the family. Because if she has any money, the first thing she does is help her children. That's where a lot of the aid agencies have targeted -- helping women -- and it has been very effective in bringing change.
espnW: Players like Stacy Lewis, Juli Inkster, Renee Powell, Esther Choe and Katherine Kirk have joined you on trips to see these changes firsthand.
BK: The trip in '06 was a great trip, and that was sort of at the beginning. Juli brought her girls with her. We've built a medical clinic and there have been some economic development things. I know for me, the first time I went to Africa, it was very life-changing for me to see. It's hard to understand. We have poverty here in the United States, but in many places in Africa, it's the majority of the people -- the vast majority of the people. And the other thing is, they don't have the safety net we have in this country.
We're so blessed in this country. There are so many services you can call upon, whether it be government or nonprofits or churches that can step in and help. There are issues here, but I don't think there are too many people who live here in the United States without electricity, without running water, on dirt floors. It's just hard to fathom.
espnW: We've seen you celebrating with the villages, too.
BK: I have to say, it's been fun to do well dedications. It's fun to be with a community that's already received a well, so they're celebrating with you. Twice I've been in villages where the rig is there and they've brought water to the surface for the first time, and that's exciting, too. In Africa, everyone sings and dances for celebration, so we're a part of that, too. And you know what it means to a village.
espnW: How hands-on are you? Do you select projects and where you go?
BK: One thing I determined early on, I didn't want to reinvent the wheel. Teaming with World Vision, they're as old as the LPGA -- kind of a coincidence -- and they're in 100 countries all over the world. They have the expertise, and our feeling was we wanted to go with someone doing the best work, and now they're actually bringing clean water to more people than any other NGO in the world.
The second thing, we go to Africa every year (LPGA players take the December trip, after the season concludes). It costs money to go, but we feel as though that way we can say to our donors, we've been there. We know where the money goes. When we tell you it's going to do a well for this village, it does.
espnW: Where do you see Golf Fore Africa in 10 years?
BK: I can say right now our goal is to raise $2 million for the clean-water project, and once we do that, we'll move on to the next thing. We haven't decided if we're going to keep doing the water. It's so basic and it's life-saving. If you don't have clean water, you're in trouble. So I don't know.
World Vision has a whole portfolio of things they're doing. They might take us and show us something and we just say, that's something we'd like to do.
espnW: Let's change gears and talk about golf. You won what you and a lot of us still call the Dinah three times: In 1987, you beat Patty Sheehan in a playoff, and you won in 1990 and 1997. Did one of those stand out above the rest?
BK: Not really. I know the one where I beat Patty was surprising for me because I holed a bunker shot on 16 coming in for birdie. Then, in the playoff -- it was on 15 -- I hit to the right and had to kind of pitch it back out. Patty was on the green in two and she's probably thinking she's won it. I knocked it on 12 to 15 feet and made it for par to keep it going, then won on the next hole. I remember the particulars there better, maybe because it was a playoff. But they're all special.
espnW: You won in Palm Springs three times, but you only jumped into Poppie's Pond once?
BK: And I didn't do a very good job of it. Amy Alcott started it (in 1988). I had won the year before, but even after Amy jumped in -- she even got Dinah to jump with her -- not everyone was jumping in. The next time I won it, most everyone was going in, but it wasn't like you had everyone with you and you were making this big leap. I didn't do it that year. When I went in after winning in 1997, I went in by myself. Didn't really do the big jump, so if I had it to do all over again, I'd do a better job of getting in there.
espnW: Which player today reminds you of you?
BK: Stacy. It's funny. She stayed with me during the Phoenix event in 2011 after she had gone to Africa with us. I told someone then, she really reminds me of myself. She's a little bit of a loner, she's very competitive, works hard, practices hard, has an all-around good game. We had played nine holes together that week in 2011, and I said I thought she was going to do really well. She won the Kraft Nabisco the next week.
espnW: Young players like Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson are taking the LPGA by storm. What are your thoughts on them?
BK: They're pretty amazing. My theory starts with the instruction they get today and the age they start -- younger and younger. And they only play golf. They're not doing all these other sports [when they're young], then getting to college or out of college and playing golf full time. It's more that they're doing golf since they're 6 years old, and they're going to get to their peak at an earlier age.
... As good as Lydia is -- and obviously she's tremendous -- she might not get much better than what she is at 17. Maybe she grows a little bit more. She's very mature and she's had years of instruction. I'm not saying she can't be a dominant player or continue to be a dominant player, but you look at the average 17-year-old and you think, gosh, how good are they going to be at 25? She may be as good now as she is going be at 25.
espnW: Will we see you at the U.S. Women's Open at Lancaster CC? You grew up near there.
BK: I've already been up there and spoken at a dinner for the Open in February. I grew up in the area near Reading [in Pennsylvania] and my brother and I still own property up there. And the Open is the week before our second Golf Fore Africa Pro-Am, so we'll be getting players from there to Long Island for that.