Editor’s note—Upon hearing the news of Toby Keith’s passing on Feb. 6 at age 62 from stomach cancer, I couldn’t help but reflect on the interview that ran in 2019. As a fan of country music and Keith’s work as well (his concert at West Point in 2004 a few years after 9/11 was one for the ages), I count it as one of the most fun assignments I’ve ever had. Keith was receiving Golf Digest’s Arnie Award for his love of golf and creation of the OK Kids Korral in Oklahoma City for kids with cancer. That cancer took Keith’s life is ironic—some might say unfair—given how much energy and passion he put into helping others with the disease. Keith’s passing isn’t just a loss to the music world, but golf and philanthropy as well. —E. Michael Johnson
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Toby Keith has been one of the biggest stars in country music for 25 years. But for families staying at his OK Kids Korral for children with cancer, his presence goes beyond his music. Emulating St. Jude Children’s Research Center, the OK Kids Korral in Oklahoma City provides a place for entire families to stay in an environment that Keith calls “Ritz Carlton meets Disneyland” while children receive treatment at the Children’s Hospital at OU Medical Center and the Proton Therapy Center. The Toby Keith & Friends Golf Classic has been a major driver of the funds necessary to open and run the operation. An avid golfer, Keith is a regular participant at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. He also owns a golf course outside Oklahoma City, where he plays to a 15.6 Index. One of Keith’s biggest hits is titled “How Do You Like Me Now?” Given his passion for golf and philanthropy, we answer that question with a heartfelt, “Very much.”
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I understand you play nearly every day. Did you play today?
I did. I played at my home course, Belmar Golf Club. It’s just a few miles from my home. We have a big men’s group that goes off every day other than Monday. They go off around noon, so I have two tee times every day in that big Wolf game. It’s a blast.
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How did you come to own your course?
It’s my pet peeve to drive more than 15 to 20 minutes to play golf. I’ve passed up playing some wonderful courses because I don’t like to drive 45 minutes.
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But I understand you’ll fly somewhere to play if the weather isn’t good.
I have a house in Cabo, and if it’s 105 in Cabo and 110 here in Oklahoma, I might pack up and go for four or five days to Jackson Hole, Wyo., and play five days straight there. I don’t mind relocating and then playing. I just don’t like being in a place and driving 45 minutes there and 45 minutes back. It’s eating your whole day up.
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You’ve partnered with Steve Stricker at the AT&T for a number of years. How did that come about?
Stricker came to a show, and we got together. When Pebble Beach asked me to play in the AT&T, I was a little hesitant because, man, it’s a long week. Then Colt Ford said, “It’s a blast, and they really want you to come.” I said, “If you get Stricker to be my partner, I’ll do it.” Fifteen minutes later, Stricker called me. We’ve played every year since.
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Clint Eastwood is obviously a big part of AT&T week. He inspired a song you recently wrote while you were playing golf with him.
A big one. We were playing at his course, Teháma, and he told me his birthday was the next day. He was going to be 88, and he was leaving right after the golf to go shoot a movie called “The Mule.” I asked him what kept him going, and he said, “You just gotta get up every day and not let the old man in.” I went home and wrote “Don’t Let the Old Man In” and sent it to him. He called the next day and said it fit his movie perfectly, and he was putting it in.
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Let’s talk about a more fun song, “S**tty Golfer.” Did you consciously want to write a golf-related song, or did it just kind of happen?
I hadn’t heard any golf songs that were really funny, and I thought it would be neat. There’s not many people who play golf that have never said a cuss word.
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What’s the key to being a success in philanthropy?
I don’t think you can just say, “I’m raising money for X charity.” They need to see you have a passion and a vision. They need to see the sticks and bricks. They need to see where every penny is going. They need to see how much good is being done. It’s easier to get people to help you if you have a piece of your heart invested.
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You’ve called the OK Kids Korral “a calling by God.” What did you mean by that?
Sure, people will show up and give because they’re playing with Steve Stricker, John Daly, Tom Weiskopf, Roger Clemens, Troy Aikman and Greg Maddux. But at the end of the day, what are you going to do with that money? Once you get your focus, your light shining on something, that’s your calling.
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Your focus had a personal connection.
My guitar player from before I had a record deal eventually became my road manager. He got married and had two kids. One of them at age 2 had a tumor. I had been donating all of my efforts and money to St. Jude’s, which is an incredible organization. I called in a favor, and they took her but weren’t able to save her. Her mother said later she didn’t have anything with her when they arrived. St. Jude’s told her, “Here’s your room, here’s some Walmart cards, here’s some food 24/7.” They didn’t charge her a penny. That led me to realize that’s what we needed in Oklahoma City. Kids with cancer and their families come here for free. We feed them, shuttle them, whatever it takes. People have really gotten on board with it.
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Anytime you’re dealing with kids who are sick it has to have its ups and downs.
It does. If they stay and get cured, they get to ring the bell at the hospital. But some of them don’t make it. You get close to these kids, and it’s heartbreaking.
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How has your tournament to benefit the Korral grown over the years?
It’s been tremendous. In 18 years, we’ve raised more than $13 million, including $1.3 million from the last event. The support has been incredible.
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One last question: Are you playing tomorrow?
We are. Balls in the air at noon.
This article was originally published on golfdigest.com