Project Next

Af­ter a life-threat­en­ing bout with can­cer, vet­eran golf an­a­lyst Mark Rolf­ing beats the odds and is now giv­ing back in ev­ery way he knows how.

HILuxury - - CONTENTS - by ANN MILLER photography by MARCO GAR­CIA

Mark Rolf­ing's new lease on life

FOR GOLF'S SAKE, THANK GOD MARK ROLF­ING DIDN'T HAVE ENOUGH GAME. WHO ELSE COULD HAVE IMAG­INED, IN­STI­GATED AND NUR­TURED so many high-pro­file pro­fes­sional golf events in par­adise? Who else could have taken his show—and Hawai‘i's—on the road as the first TV golf an­a­lyst with­out a ma­jor cham­pi­onship to his name? Who else could have brought Tiger Woods and for­mer POTUS— and Pu­na­hou alumni—Barack Obama to­gether for a project on Chicago's South Side that the Illi­nois-born Rolf­ing sim­ply calls “the fu­ture of sus­tain­able ur­ban golf in Amer­ica"? And re­ally, who else could en­vi­sion the heart of Hawai‘i golf as a pul­sat­ing sym­bol of the game's fu­ture—and pos­si­bly Waikiki's—that en­ter­tains thou­sands and em­ploys hun­dreds along the mauka shore of Ala Wai Canal?

At 68, and two years from a can­cer di­ag­no­sis, the guy who lives on Ka­palua Bay's ocean­side fifth hole is not still just think­ing out of the box. The box has been blown up and Rolf­ing is on a tear pow­ered by 40 years of as­ton­ish­ing ac­com­plish­ments.

He sees an in­fi­nite fu­ture, along with wife Debi, who has been an ac­tive part­ner on this en­tire wild ride and the heart­warm­ing per­sonal sto­ries that have hap­pened out of sight.

“My can­cer is the real rea­son why Chicago and Ala Wai are projects that are gain­ing such mo­men­tum,” says Rolf­ing, whose Stage 4 sali­vary gland can­cer has been in re­mis­sion more than a year. “If we had not gone through that, I can al­most prom­ise this would not be hap­pen­ing. These are such mas­sive projects. If not for such a lifechanger, we wouldn't have taken this on.”

How mas­sive? Rolf­ing is now pres­i­dent of the non-profit Chicago Parks Golf Al­liance. He en­vi­sions the $30 mil­lion project to re­con­fig­ure two city cour­ses as a place that can change an en­tire com­mu­nity. It will be “the front yard” of Obama's Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary, with Woods the lead de­signer.

On the Hawai‘i home front, he dreams of Ala Wai Mu­nic­i­pal be­com­ing the model for the “sus­tain­abil­ity of golf in Hawai‘i,” to say noth­ing of the “be­gin­ning of the re­fur­bish­ment of the back side of Waikiki.”

“It's not like 30 years ago when you could build a tro­phy golf course peo­ple paid a lot of money for or a real es­tate devel­op­ment where golf was an amenity, and it made sense to build these great cour­ses,” Rolf­ing in­sists. “The fu­ture of golf in Hawai‘i is based on the growth of the game at the grass-roots level. If we stay stag­nant or con­tinue to lose ground, it's not go­ing be sus­tain­able.”

Rolf­ing has had a num­ber of dis­cus­sions with the city about the fu­ture of golf here and keeps go­ing back to the game's three ba­sic prob­lems: Too dif­fi­cult, takes too long and costs too much.

“Un­til we get se­ri­ous about ad­dress­ing those is­sues, there is no chance for growth, which means the game is not sus­tain­able,” he says. “My hope is that we be­gin at the grass-roots level and zero-in on Ala Wai be­cause we've got to start some­where so let's start there. Let's have the city and county hit the re­set but­ton and say ‘ here's our plan.'”

Rolf­ing en­vi­sions all Hawai‘i's golf as­so­ci­a­tions un­der one roof at the course just mauka of Waikiki. He sees an 18-hole course “with a lit­tle dif­fer­ent char­ac­ter to it” be­cause of ren­o­va­tions nec­es­sary for it to hold wa­ter “if the 100-year storm comes down the Ala Wai Canal.”

There would be a prac­tice fa­cil­ity that com­bines golf and en­ter­tain­ment—some­thing like Top­golf, now ad­ver­tis­ing 500 em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties in Char­lotte, N.C., its 33rd and lat­est site. The 17-yearold com­pany is known for dou­ble- and triple-decker ranges where guests— about half have never golfed be­fore—hit mi­cro-chipped golf balls at tar­gets.

Rolf­ing's new golf world would be a base for ju­nior golfers and col­lege teams and play­ers of ev­ery age and skill level by day. Se­ri­ous fun could take over at night. And those 100,000 tourists across the canal would have one more great op­tion for en­ter­tain­ment.


Ide­ally, such a mas­sive con­ces­sion would help fund all six mu­nic­i­pal cour­ses, and some of that ex­pan­sion.

“Golf can be an amaz­ing hub for ac­tiv­ity, and I truly be­lieve Ala Wai should al­ways be a golf course, but it is a huge foot­print of land for a pub­lic golf fa­cil­ity,” Rolf­ing says. “There is am­ple space not uti­lized right now. My thought is, with a lit­tle re­con­fig­ur­ing, you could help solve flood­ing prob­lems and at the same time, cre­ate spa­ces for other ac­tiv­i­ties.

“At this point I'm a cheer­leader, in­sti­ga­tor, dot con­nec­tor,” he says. “Am I go­ing to be the guy who fig­ures it out? Maybe not. Can I be a fac­tor in find­ing the right peo­ple to fig­ure it out and get it to­gether? The an­swer is yes.”

Chicago thought the same thing, along with Obama who, like Rolf­ing, sees the South Shore devel­op­ment as a grass-roots ini­tia­tive that can have a huge im­pact on the com­mu­nity. The Oba­mas' wed­ding re­cep­tion was at the South Shore Cul­tural Cen­ter on the cur­rent site and his Pres­i­den­tial Li­brary will be there in the fu­ture.

“Obama called Tiger,” Rolf­ing re­calls, “and in ef­fect said, ‘I'd like you to get in­volved.' Within 10 or 11 days Tiger had ar­ranged to come spend the day with me up there, look­ing at the site and try­ing to un­der­stand what's go­ing on, on a beau­ti­ful sum­mer day in Au­gust.”

Woods' first re­ac­tion to the site was “Where are all the kids?” He kept ask­ing Rolf­ing the same ques­tion while they looked it over.

Their vi­sion is to trans­form Jack­son Park—built in 1899—and South Shore—a coun­try club un­til 1974—into an 18-hole cham­pi­onship golf course with a fam­i­ly­ori­ented short course and a prac­tice fa­cil­ity. The plan is to have at least 80 per­cent of the ren­o­va­tion cost funded by do­na­tions, a model Rolf­ing calls unique in the game.

The project, like Ala Wai, is close to his heart for in­fi­nite rea­sons, not the least be­ing his can­cer di­ag­no­sis. He re­mem­bers the day he got it, two hours be­fore a meet­ing with the Chicago Park District.

“The doc­tor said what you have is ex­tremely se­ri­ous,” Rolf­ing re­calls. “The tu­mor has got to come out im­me­di­ately. There is small chance of re­cov­er­ing. I re­mem­ber talk­ing to Debi and mak­ing the de­ci­sion not to can­cel the meet­ing and not to tell them what oc­curred two hours be­fore.

“We went in there think­ing we have a chance to make a dif­fer­ence. I'm go­ing to beat this can­cer and I'm go­ing to re­ally re-think why I do things, have more of a sense of ur­gency and con­vic­tion. I can do it if I have more of a sense of hope. In a mat­ter of a cou­ple hours, my whole out­look on the di­ag­no­sis changed. “It was my best day and my worst day. With­out a doubt, they were the same day.”

The Rolf­ings also con­sider the day they landed in Hawai‘i one of their best. Af­ter many mostly for­get­table golf tour­na­ments

on four con­ti­nents, and two dis­ap­point­ing PGA Tour Q-school ap­pear­ances, Mark and Debi ar­rived on Maui in late 1975.

Debi worked her way into a suc­cess­ful real es­tate ca­reer and Mark—for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Dan Quayle's golf team­mate and room­mate at DePauw Univer­sity—rose to head pro at Ka­palua. His gift for golf and be­ing good com­pany made him the re­sort's point man for VIP vis­i­tors like Pres. Ger­ald Ford and Jackie Ste­wart.

Soon af­ter, Rolf­ing told Thos Rohr, Pres­i­dent of Ka­palua Land Co., he was plan­ning to take a job as head pro at Peb­ble Beach.

“I said to Mark, ‘Are you sure you just want to be a head golf pro­fes­sional? I think you can do way more,'” Rohr re­calls. “He

said, ‘Per­haps, but golf is my life and I want to stay in golf.' I asked him what busi­ness­man he knew played the most golf. And he ad­mit­ted it was me as head of Ka­palua.”

Rohr talked him into be­com­ing Ka­palua's first Di­rec­tor of Mar­ket­ing. It was 1979. He has been in awe since.

“Mark Rolf­ing has done more than any­one for the State of Hawai‘i over the years,” Rohr says. “Us­ing his pub­lic per­sona, Mark has very ef­fec­tively as­sisted the state in stay­ing at the fore­front of pro­fes­sional and ama­teur golf. He has done it all—devel­op­ment, own­er­ship, an­nounc­ing, golfer friend­ship, tour­na­ments. Mark is uni­ver­sally re­spected in the world of golf.”

Fel­low broad­caster and pro­fes­sional golfer Peter Ja­cob­sen has be­come a close friend since he was in­vited to the Arnold Palmer Golf Party in 1977. Palmer was re­tained to de­sign Ka­palua's Vil­lage Course.

“I had a great time and met a young Mark Rolf­ing who was mak­ing it all hap­pen at Ka­palua that day,” Ja­cob­sen re­calls. “I think he has been the driv­ing force be­hind at­tract­ing the eyes of the world to the magic and won­der of Hawai‘ i. Not just to the many tremen­dous golf cour­ses and resorts in Hawai‘ i, but also to the cul­ture, the food, the mu­sic and the life­style of Hawai‘ i.”

He was right. Th e Rolf­ings had fallen in love with Hawai‘ i by then. Noth­ing would ever be the same, for them or Hawai‘ i golf.

Mark de­vel­oped a re­la­tion­ship with Palmer and cre­ated the Ka­palua Open off-sea­son event in 1982. Its to­tal purse was

$110,000 and David Ishii won out over an im­pres­sive fi eld. Th e next year Greg Nor­man got his first vic­tory in the U.S. at what was now known as the Ka­palua In­ter­na­tional. First place alone was worth $100,000.

By the end of its 16-year run, the Lin­coln-Mer­cury Ka­palua In­ter­na­tional was affi li­ated with the PGA Tour. All four rounds were on live prime time cable and net­work tele­vi­sion, it had moved to the new Plan­ta­tion Course and was owned by (Mark and Debi) Rolf­ing Productions.

By then, their com­pany also staged a Se­nior PGA Tour stop at Ka‘ana­pali, the Maui Clas­sic col­lege basketball tour­na­ment, ten­nis and wind­surf­ing events. Mark was a full­time broad­caster on net­work TV, a ca­reer sparked by an in­vi­ta­tion to come into the booth af­ter he won a car at the 17th Hole Par 3 at his own event in 1985.

“I had never thought about it be­fore,” Rolf­ing said of TV. “I didn't plan for it, had no idea I could com­mu­ni­cate. Th ere was no Gary McCord or David Fe­herty back then. If you hadn't won a ma­jor cham­pi­onship, you had no chance. My Hawai‘ i As­sis­tant Pro­fes­sional Cham­pi­onship vic­tory was not quite go­ing to get me there.

“What got me there was my abil­ity to com­mu­ni­cate and con­nect, not based on my play­ing record but peo­ple be­liev­ing me and look­ing at me as some­body they trusted in terms of the mes­sage I was de­liv­er­ing to them. I was a huge up­set.”

By 1999, Ka­palua had be­come home to the PGA Tour's Tour­na­ment of Cham­pi­ons and Mark was the face of Hawai‘ i golf and its pro­fes­sional golf sea­son, broad­cast all over the world to an au­di­ence that couldn't get enough of our balmy “win­ter” weather.

Debi was serving as Vice Pres­i­dent of Rolf­ing Sports, Inc. and still work­ing in real es­tate. One of her best in­vest­ments came in 1985 when she and Mark be­came part of a part­ner­ship that pur­chased the Ka­palua Bay Ho­tel.

A few years af­ter, as the Rolf­ings were fin­ish­ing the devel­op­ment of the Plan­ta­tion Course, Debi be­came deeply in­volved in “An­gel Ba­bies.” The Rolf­ings pro­vided “cra­dle care” in their Ka­palua home, for new­borns, some med­i­cally and crit­i­cally frag­ile. In 1999, their first an­gel baby ar­rived and was in Debi's care for three weeks. She said then “It is what fills my heart.”

Now the cou­ple has nur­tured 28 an­gel ba­bies, keep­ing them safe and loved un­til they can re­turn to their birth par­ents or be adopted with a “for­ever” fam­ily. They also have three hanai chil­dren—Michelle, Matthew and BJ.

“I feel this was a di­vine ap­point­ment,” Debi says. “God was mak­ing my pur­pose for life abun­dantly clear to my heart. Noth­ing I had ac­com­plished in my busi­ness life even came close to the ful­fill­ment I was blessed with hav­ing a new­born lay­ing on my heart.”

Mark says Debi “has al­ways been a car­ing for the keiki kind of per­son.” Beyond An­gel Ba­bies, she has served as Trustee and Di­rec­tor of the Mark and Debi Rolf­ing Char­i­ta­ble Foun­da­tion for more than 25 years, with all funds di­rected to chil­dren's char­i­ties.

That can­not com­pare to what their chil­dren have brought to the Rolf­ings' lives.

“Re­cently, our hanai chil­dren have helped us through the chal­lenges of Mark's can­cer jour­ney,” Debi says. “We are all trav­el­ing this path to­gether. They lift us up and give true pur­pose to our lives. I would say that is how we have changed. Now our lives are about fam­ily.” And golf, and fight­ing can­cer, and Hawai‘i. “Mark and Debi are as fine a team as I have ever seen, in any­thing,” Rohr says. “Mark would be the first to tell you, he couldn't have done all he's done with­out the ca­pa­ble sup­port of Debi.”

“They com­ple­ment each other's skills per­fectly. And they are both so at­trac­tive and per­son­able. And never un­der­es­ti­mate their fer­tile imag­i­na­tions and drive. Ev­ery­where they go, they are think­ing of how to be help­ful.”

Clearly, that is what makes them happy.

FROM TOP: Rolf­ing re­ports live from the LPGA LOTTE Cham­pi­onship as NBC's Golf Chan­nel an­a­lyst; Rolf­ing greets pro­fes­sional golfer Michelle Wie with a hug ( pho­tos by Marco Gar­cia). OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Rolf­ing with his wife Debi and their “an­gel ba­bies” ( photo cour­tesy Mark and Debi Rolf­ing).

CLOCK­WISE, FROM TOP: Debi Rolf ing with Arnold Palmer circa 1978; The Gov­er­nor's Din­ner in honor of Mark Rolf ing Day Proclamation on Feb. 23, 2016; The Rolf ings f ounded The Mark and Debi Rolf ing Charit able Foun­da­tion, pro­vid­ing “cra­dle care” f or new­borns. Debi is pic­tured here with baby Sa­muel Mar­cus ( pho t os c our­tesy Mark and Debi Rolf­ing).

FROM TOP: Mark (right) and Arnold Palmer (lef t) in Ka­palua; Mark's early NBC an­nounc­ing ca­reer; Mark in­ter view­ing Tiger Woods f or NBC ( pho­tos cour­tesy Mark Rolf­ing).

Mark Rolf­ing and Tiger Woods are in t alks t o part­ner and ren­o­vate Chicago's South Shore Cul­tural Cen­ter into an 18-hole cham­pi­onship golf course with a prac­tice f acilit y ( photo cour­tesy Mark Rolf­ing).

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