McHugh's Charitable Work Helps Keep Golf In Perspective September 27, 2015 | NASHVILLE, TENN. By Lisa D. Mickey

Donna McHugh, still healing from recent tragedy, almost didn't come to Nashville to compete in this year's championship. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

U.S. Senior Women's Amateur Home

After she competed in last year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur Championship at Hollywood Golf Club in her home state of New Jersey and didnt advance to match play, Donna McHugh spent the past year practicing and hoping for another try this year. When she made it through sectional qualifying on August 28, she was ecstatic for her second chance in a USGA championship.

Then, as she was preparing to depart for Nashville, her father-in-law passed away last Tuesday. Following his burial last Friday, McHugh told her husband, Jim, she was not going to the USGA championship after all.

“He is my biggest fan, and he made sure I got here,” said McHugh, 55, who arrived in Nashville Friday night before teeing up in Saturday’s opening round of stroke-play qualifying at Hillwood Country Club.

“He knows how important this is to me and both he and his father have been supportive of my golf ever since I started playing 11 years ago,” said McHugh of Montville, N.J.

Understandably, McHugh struggled in the first round, carding a 16-over score of 88 that included more three-putt greens than she cared to remember. But she kept the day’s disappointment in perspective.

“It’s only golf,” said McHugh, who begins her second round today at 9:05 a.m. and is determined to post a better score. “It was a tough day, but this is just a game.”

McHugh gained a deeper sense of perspective in 2010 when her husband’s brother, United States Army Col. John M. McHugh, was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan. The 24-year military veteran was one of 18 individuals, including five soldiers, who lost their lives when a suicide bomber crashed a minibus packed with explosives into the officer’s convoy.

“It was really shocking,” she said. “At the time, John’s son was serving in Iraq, so when the military came to the house to say that somebody had died, we thought it was going to be Michael, not John, because John was usually surrounded by a higher level of protection due to his rank.”

As soon as his former West Point Military Academy classmates learned about the officer’s death, the retired soldiers sprung to action, offering to assist McHugh’s family in launching a charity in the name of their fallen friend.

Together, they started the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund (www.johnnymac.org) in 2011, a foundation that has raised about $1.5 million and delivered more than $1 million to benefit the nonprofit Children of the Fallen Soldiers Relief Fund (www.cfsrf.org).

Through charity golf tournaments and dinner galas, the foundation has been able to provide grants and financial assistance to surviving children and spouses of U.S. military service members who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Children of Fallen Soldiers identifies and awards scholarship recipients while the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund helps raise monies.

In addition, the two organizations working together have established a fellowship at Stanford University to help educate returning soldiers. The motto of the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund is “Giving Back Through Education.”

McHugh said her brother-in-law must have “had some fun” with her family and his former West Point classmates at that inaugural 2011 golf tournament in his memory in Bloomfield, N.J. Numerous family and friends showed up for the tournament, but it poured down rain that day. They were able to play only two holes before the event was called.

“It was John’s joke on us because he was one of the worst golfers you ever saw,” said McHugh with a chuckle. “Maybe all that rain had something to do with the fact that we were holding a golf tournament in his honor.”

But despite its soggy start, the event has grown over the last four years. Earlier this spring, the Johnny Mac Soldiers Fund hosted a successful gala dinner in Houston that was emceed by actor Anthony Anderson, star of the ABC comedy “Black-ish.” Anderson donated an auction item during the dinner, offering a small role in his TV show for $35,000.

In May, McHugh said the foundation’s “more affordable” golf tournament was hosted by West Point, and just last week, the charity’s top-tier golf outing was held at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey. That event featured a guest appearance by PGA star Rickie Fowler.

In October, a group representing the Johnny Mac Foundation (including Donna McHugh’s two sons) will run in the Army 10-Miler road race in Washington, D.C., with the goal of raising $20,000. On Oct. 29, another gala celebration will be held in Birmingham, Ala.

“John’s classmates served in the military and now they’re coming back to help others,” said McHugh. “Because of the money we’ve been able to raise through golf, we’ve been able to help a lot of families.”

Golf has proven to be a blessing for the McHugh family in what it can offer others. But it has also given much to McHugh as she hones her game against top senior women amateurs.

At last year’s U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur, McHugh  was paired with Ellen Port, winner of six USGA titles. The entire experience gave her new incentive.

“I thought, you played horribly, but let’s try it again, and I finished as co-medalist at my qualifier [with Alicia Kapheim] this year,” said McHugh.

McHugh knows she has dug herself a big hole and is unlikely to make it to Monday’s match-play round. But she is also pragmatic in this week’s championship.

“I play golf for fun and maybe I’ll play better on Sunday or maybe I won’t,” she said.

“But how lucky am I to play in two national championships in two years?” added McHugh. “As time passes, I’ve realized how important things are – like family and enjoying life. Even if I finish last in this championship, I know that golf is not the important thing, but it is the fun part.”

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