LPGA Star & Diabetes Activist
Michelle McGann has been one of the most popular personalities in women’s golf for the last 30 years. Perhaps most recognizable for her fashion sense and stylish hats, she has also claimed nine LPGA tour victories and appeared on two Solheim teams. While she has found success on the course, her best efforts may in fact lie in her determination to bring about diabetes awareness and empower families with the support and education they need to ensure a healthy today and tomorrow for their child.
Where were you raised?
I was raised right here in West Palm Beach. I’m a native Floridian, which is a rare thing for my generation. I couldn’t be happier that my parents decided to move back from South Bend because West Palm really is heaven on earth.
Tell me about your parents.
I credit them with almost everything. My dad was a great athlete. He played basketball and football growing up; he played football at Notre Dame. My dad also loved golf, which he taught himself. He was a scratch golfer. My mom was a good athlete herself, a tennis player. But she was also the brain of our family and a pediatric nurse practitioner. She was the one that diagnosed me with Type 1 Diabetes. They have been with me every step of the way.
At age 7, you held your first golf club?
My mom was a nurse. Patients that owned a golf course came into my mother’s office, and in conversation, they suggested she bring me out some afternoon and see if I liked it. My mom took me to the golf course. We had daily clinics every Saturday. There would be ten or fifteen of us hitting balls. We had a lady professional who had diabetes, which is ironic because I was diagnosed with diabetes not long after.
When that golf club went into your hand, was it a life-altering moment, or was it something that you learned to love over time?
I think I loved it right away. I loved being around sports. Originally, I was a gymnast, and then I was too tall to do that. Next, I played softball. Unfortunately, I was hit in the eye at a tournament. I had three eye operations, and as a result, I stopped playing softball. Back then, I am not sure that I could have become a professional softball player; however, now you can. So, I thought, “Well, I can probably make something out of playing golf.” I decided to follow my dream of being a golfer. “Who knows where this will take me,” I thought.
Was your height of 5’11 considered tall as a golfer?
It was more unusual for me to be a girl and play golf than it was
that I was a tall girl.
What was the male/female ratio at the time?
One to ten probably.
Talented in golf, beautiful, blonde, 5’11”, surrounded by a group of men… How was that?
I was very shy, so I didn’t say a whole lot. I just really wanted to play golf. The guys were like brothers to me because I was an only child for nine years. It was fun until I started beating them. Then, they didn’t think it was so cool. As more girls got involved in playing golf, the guys wanted me to dominate. They wanted me to win all the time. It made me a stronger player because I always wanted to be better. I knew that somebody was always better than me. The guys pushed me to hit it a little bit further and to swing a little bit harder. To this day, a lot of those guys are still some of my best friends.
What was the moment when you realized that you were exceptional in golf?
I set goals: to break 50 for nine holes; then to break 80 for 18 holes. I traveled out of the country, out of the state. I played in the Junior World out in California. During my high school years, I was dominating here in Palm Beach County. I won the state junior three years in a row and the high school state championship. I figured I was going to be pretty good at the sport. My goal was to win the U.S. Junior Girls, and I did that in ‘88, ‘87. To actually win, that was a thrill. I haven’t won an Open, but we now have a Senior Open, which I’ll be excited to play in 2020.
Are you preparing for that now?
Yes. I am trying to get into better shape. Mental is half the battle. Enjoying what we’re doing too, of course.
How did your mother diagnose you with diabetes?
I remember losing a lot of weight and taking a lot of naps, which was strange because I was very active. I did everything with my dad or my mom. We were always riding bikes or Big Wheels. I was just being a kid. I remember drinking excessive amounts of water. The Big Gulp had just come out, and it was nothing for me to drink several of those. Ironically, my mom was away on a seminar on diabetes. It was Mother’s Day weekend, and I was with my dad. When she came home, I had probably lost ten or twelve pounds in a couple days. It was very noticeable, and she could smell the ketones on my breath as soon as she walked in. My dad said, “You’ve been learning about this all weekend. There is no way Michelle is diabetic.” But she said, “I’m telling you, she is.”
Were either or your parents diabetic, or had there been diabetes in your family?
A few generations back on my dad’s side, an uncle had diabetes, pre-insulin. Other than that, no one even thought about it. The next morning, my mom took me to the office. Back then, we didn’t even have finger sticks, and everything was judged by a urine sample. My test was off the charts. I went to the hospital right away. I had no idea what diabetes was, but I knew another boy that I went to school with had diabetes. When you’re a kid, you have no idea.
With Type 1 Diabetes, is there a switch that turns on?
Every case is different. Sometimes, it can be hereditary. It can be caused when a virus or bacterial infection attacks your pancreas. I don’t think they’re a hundred percent sure. I was just fortunate enough that my mom was very knowledgeable and could pick up on it right away. Some people can go days, maybe weeks before being diagnosed, and then it might be too late. The symptoms are very obvious. You can tell by the loss of weight and other key signs. Any parent out there should get to know the signs because they could be right in front of you, and you don’t even see them. If you do, go right to the emergency room because something’s not right if you lose a significant amount of weight, drink tremendous amounts of water and urinate excessively.
From your diagnosis at age 13 until 18, when you went on tour, what role did the diabetes play?
My mom worked for a pediatric doctor, and she read a little news blurb in one of the medical magazines saying that there could be a breakthrough. They had results of a study in London, Ontario, Canada for newly diagnosed diabetics. My mom and dad talked about giving me the best opportunity and doing everything they possibly could. There was a chance the breakthrough might be somewhat of a cure and hopefully could help me. My parents flew us to London. Other times, we would fly to Detroit and would drive into Canada. We’re not used to the snow, so we didn’t have heavy winter coats. I had to go once a month for five years, and it was hard. It was hard on my parents. It was hard on me sitting there doing the tests, which sometimes took hours. But, because I was on that medicine, I was off insulin for five years.
What was the medicine?
It was called Cyclosporin, and it helped keep my blood sugars in control. However, it was toxic to your kidneys. I had excessive gum growth and had my gums cut twice. I had a kidney biopsy as well. Finally, it wasn’t working to keep my diabetes in control. But, for the time I took Cyclosporin, it was good for my health. It was tough in school even though I had great teachers. I went to a small all-girls school, and they were fabulous in helping me catch up with my studies. Some of the girls thought it was a vacation for me every two weeks. I remember one of the Adrian Dominican sisters who taught us said, “You know, what? This will prepare you for what lies ahead.” She was right. When you play the LPGA Tour, you walk into a world of all women. Sometimes, there’s a little bit of jealousy or evil thoughts, but that’s life. So, every little step in my life, I have learned from steps before. Diabetes totally prepares you. You learn to just move on, and you go to the next step, and it made me stronger.
You were at a crossroads at 18. What was that?
I won the U.S. Junior Girls and was Player of the Year. I could have gone anywhere in the country I wanted to go to play golf. I narrowed my selection down to three or four schools. Also, I was coming off of this medicine, and I had to go back on insulin. It was going to be a juggle for me to play golf, keep up my studies and go on insulin. I decided to go to the University of Miami, but at the last minute, I decided that it might be just too much. At the time, no one was really sure about life expectancy, and nobody had been on this experimental program for that long. I talked to Dave Stockton, who was a great player. I played with his son. We were at an outing together. He said, “Why don’t you try to make it? You’re good enough. Why don’t you go to Tour School, and give it a shot?” My parents supported me in that decision, but I missed the cutoff for the first Tour School. And so, I only had one opportunity to make it to the final, and I made it. Then I made it through the final school. My first year on the LPGA was in 1989. I was just turning 19. I couldn’t rent a car, and I didn’t have a credit card. I didn’t know what I was capable of, and here I went. It was a struggle. It was a struggle health-wise. It was a struggle to get the confidence to play at a totally different level. I made less than $12,000, and I probably spent $40,000. It was a tough road, but I went back to school. I got my tour card, and I made enough money. It was just all uphill from there. It was also a struggle at times to try to manage my health. Imagine trying to control diabetes with layovers, missed flights, early tee times, late tee times, missing dinners, dealing with the climate and the difference in the temperature in Arizona versus Florida, the humidity, the dry heat, the cold temperature that sometimes you’d experience in Vermont and in New York, among other factors. All those things take a toll. There is so much more to diabetes than having to take insulin and not eating sugar. It is a learning process. Every day is different. Every day I learned something, and every day I continue to learn something.
You have built a brand around wearing hats. Bill Murray saw you in a parking lot and said, “Where is your skull?”
Skull. Yes. I started wearing hats because I didn’t have a hat sponsor. I didn’t have a contract to wear somebody’s name or logo on my hat. I had just finished a really good tournament in Wilmington, Delaware. It was our LPGA Championship. I thought, “I’m just going to go shopping,” because who doesn’t like to go shopping? I ended up at the mall, and I went to Laura Ashley. There they were: these plain, simple brimmed hats with a grosgrain ribbon. I decided to try it. We were in Dallas, and I was staying with Marlene Floyd at the time. I came back to the house where we were staying, and I said, “What do you think, Marlene? Do you think I’m crazy? This will protect my face, and it’s really hot out. Maybe I’ll get a little more relief from the sun.” She said, in her little Southern voice, “You look adorable.” I remember, like it was yesterday, coming out of the locker room, peeking out like is there anybody out there? What is everybody going to say? It just became my trademark. I would go buy them every time I won a little extra money. Then, I’d coordinate my outfits. It wasn’t something I did to be showy. It just was my personality. I loved wearing bright colors, and it was fun. I’d walk out there, and if I felt good with the outfit I had on and how I looked, it made me have more confidence in how I was going to play. Sometimes it took a couple of outfits. I had to change them a few times if I did not feel great. It was fun on Sundays, and when I won, I would retire that hat. I have them in my house in cases now. It’s fun because of the memories that it brings back. I still wear them, and I always joke, “If I had a penny for every time it was windy, rainy or the conditions weren’t right to wear a big straw hat, and somebody said, ‘Where’s your hat?’” I always respond, “It isn’t raining on top of you?” You just can’t wear it; it’s blowing 15, 20 miles an hour. However, I had my own hat line, so I’d put a ball cap on and continue with my logo. I have great, great memories. Great times. To see people, no matter what age, what size, wearing one of my hats made me smile.
What is the Michelle McGann Golf Classic?
My husband and I started the Michelle McGann Golf Classic five years ago. This will be our sixth year coming up. We created a fund to help the kids that are less fortunate, that need a little extra help. For example, we are able to send some children to a diabetes camp where they won’t be singled out. Everybody there is living with the same thing and trying to be normal. When you go there for the day or the week, you are like everybody else. We also were able to hire a nurse educator at Nicklaus Children’s, which is just down the street from us. The nurse educator is able to help the doctor take care of the patients on a daily basis. I think they have over a thousand kids now with diabetes. There is no way that any one person can even start to manage that many children, let alone half of that. So, we feel great that we have been able to make a small impact right now in helping at Nicklaus Children’s and also sending kids to camps. Our golf tournament is here at Lost Tree. Last year, we had a record year raising money, which allows us to spread our wings a little bit more. Sending kids to camp in different parts of the state is a key. We started locally to help here because you never forget your roots. We will expand our wings this year since we have raised enough funds to cover a few more kids. I was lucky enough to go to Camp Corral in Coral Springs last year with my mom. It was great to see the kids interacting with each other and to watch them checking their sugar, while sitting at the table. And then to walk out and overhear some of the kids say, “Hey mom, that’s the lady that sponsored me to come here.” Parents thanked us and told us that there is no way they could have done this without our support. That is what makes this whole thing worth fighting for and keeps us moving forward. It is incredible to see these kids begin to feel like normal people. Camp counselors all have diabetes, and they come back to give back. Now, that whole generation will keep this effort moving forward, and that’s what we need. Really, our objective is for them to just feel normal. I did not know anybody growing up, other than Mary Tyler Moore, with diabetes, and even then, there was such an age gap. Now, there are so many kids with diabetes that it’s unfortunate.
What is the Michelle McGann Fund’s endgame?
Every year, we have experienced such growth. In the beginning, the goal was to get this off the ground and save a few dollars after expenses. Our biggest expense is our tournament, the Michelle McGann Golf Classic. My husband and I do everything, so we don’t have any overhead. As the tournament grows, so do our expenses. Our ultimate goal would be to hold our own camp. Whether that dream will ever become a reality, I’m not sure. We have a lot of donors from New York, Connecticut, and the Midwest. We will need to reach out to some of those people and say, “Listen, would you consider a generous donation? We want to try to help some kids in your local area and try to find camps for them to attend.” We have had camps apply for grants and that kind of stuff. Our efforts are broadening quickly. Each year, you want to make it just a little bit bigger and just try to grow and help a few more people.
This morning, a parent of a nine-year-old girl called. Is that common to hear from random parents?
Through the website and social media that we have now, we learned this little girl was diagnosed on New Year’s Day. The next day, her father sent me an email. He had just read my story and shared it with his daughter because she too likes to play golf. “You’re an inspiration for her,” he said. I love to Facetime, which is the best thing ever in life. I just said, “Listen, I’d rather talk to you. You ask me whatever you want to because whatever has happened so far, I guarantee you I’ve been through it. It won’t be an easy road, and there will be ups and downs. Try to take advantage of the ups more than the downs.” We talked for about 25 minutes this morning. Just to see that little girl smile and to ask her questions about herself was amazing. She likes to play golf, and she broke 50 the other day. She finished third out of four girls. She told me that she was in the Drive, Chip and Putt. I said, “Listen, I’ll meet you in Augusta in a couple years, so that will be a goal for you. When you win and go to Augusta, I’ll meet you there.” She said, “Okay, it’s a deal.” To see a little happiness and to give those parents some comfort in knowing that there are people out there that are willing to help is worth it. I’ve been through it, and I still go through it. I had terrible blood sugar about a month ago, and thank God my husband was here. Some people aren’t fortunate enough to have a good team around them. I owe all my success to always having a team around me. Whether it was my mom, my dad, my brother, my husband, other relatives or just friends, they have been with me through winning golf tournaments to finishing dead last when I thought I would never play again, as well as being with me in the emergency room after I’m one shot off the lead because I didn’t get enough insulin. The stories are endless. That is the power of all this now. You’re not out there by yourself.
What brings you the most joy?
Seeing others happy.
What do you want to be remembered for?
Making a difference and just being a good person. I was a good golfer, but I’m a good person too. I would hope to be remembered for always trying to help others and trying to make this place a little bit better than when I started.
What advice can you share with our cover model and talented golfer, Lucy Li?
I would say enjoy every minute. I think that a lot of young, talented players, whether male or female, live in the future. They live in a space that is so far past them that they face tremendous pressure. Enjoy it. You’re talented. You’re cute. Have fun with every minute. It sure seems to me like she does. But, golf is a tough game. Go with what it gives you. Some days the golf gods aren’t going to be with you, but try to take advantage of when they are. When they’re not, you have to fight a little bit harder. Hang in there.