Mike Vadala was going to take a break. He really was. The grind of running a professional women’s golf tour event in Syracuse for several years had drained him. It was time to downshift; to devote more time to his family and his demanding job as president and CEO of Summit Federal Credit Union.
But then that call came from out of the blue four Mays ago. It was from LPGA Commissioner Michael Whan. After four decades of being a rite of summer in Rochester, the women’s professional golf tour stop here had bolted for the greener (as in the color of money) pastures of big markets, such as the Big Apple. Whan said he felt bad about abandoning such asupportive community after 38 years and asked Vadala if he could help fill the golf void by running an LPGA Symetra Tour event for them in the Flower City.
“I told him that I was tired and that I really needed to rest, but then he said that the LPGA wanted to name the tournament in memory of my late friend, Danielle Downey,’’ Vadala says. “I said, ‘Mike that’s not fair because you know I can’t say “no” to that.’ ’’
And, so, Vadala said “yes,” and his late friend’s legacy and women’s professional golf live on in our golf-crazy burg. Next week, the third annual Danielle Downey Credit Union Classic will be played at Brook-Lea Country Club in Chili. And it will be a first-class event, thanks to the kind-hearted, indefatigable Vadala.
“First and foremost, the event never would have gotten off the ground without him, and never would have lasted without him,’’ says Erica Setzer, the older sister of Downey, the late professional golfer from Spencerport who died in an automobile accident in January 2014. “Honestly, I don’t know when Mike finds time to sleep. You wake up and there’s a text on your phone that Mike sent at midnight or one in the morning about some idea he’s come up with to help out one of the golfers.
“He is so passionate about keeping Danielle’s legacy alive. We couldn’t be more grateful, and I know Danielle would have been grateful, too, knowing that her name was attached to a tournament that kept the tradition of women’s professional golf going at the course where she literally grew up.”
Vadala, a graduate of Brighton High and Syracuse University, has plenty of motivation to work 25-hour days in order to make this fly. And at the top of the list is Downey, who, like him, was a generous soul.
One of Downey’s former Auburn University golf teammates once said: “Danielle would give you the shirt off her back. And if she didn’t have a shirt, she’d spend all day finding one for you.”
The same could be said for Vadala, whose efforts to help Downey continue her professional golf career resulted in them becoming closer than two coats of paint. It was as if Downey became Vadala’s fifth child.
“Without Mike, Danielle would not have been able to follow her dream,’’ Setzer says. “And she never forgot that.”
Vadala, 61, established an annual pro-am tournament that helped Downey raise money for the travel and lodging expenses she incurred on the LPGA Tour. Not surprisingly, Downey didn’t want to be the only beneficiary of the pro-am, in which people paid to play in foursomes. She suggested they also invite about a dozen professional women’s golfers and pair them with high school female golfers from Section V. And as a way of thanking Wegmans officials for giving her a sponsor’s exemption in the LPGA Championship at Locust Hill Country Club, Downey proposed making a donation to the grocer’s charities.
“That was so Danielle,’’ Vadala says, chuckling. “Here I am trying to raise $20,000 for her so she doesn’t have to worry about how she’s going to pay for her travel expenses, and she’s coming up with all these ideas that will actually reduce the amount of money she receives so she can take care of other struggling pros and help inspire local girl golfers.”
Those give-back ideas remain an underlying theme for the tournament that commemorates Downey’s legacy and is bolstered by nearly 350 volunteers. Two dozen local high school female golfers will play in Monday’s pro-am. And they, along with the competing pros, will attend a luncheon in which they’ll hear inspiring stories from local businesswomen. Proceeds for the week-long tournament will be donated to the Hillside Work-Scholarship Connection.
“It all fits in with what Danielle was about,’’ Vadala says.
And what Vadala’s about, too.
“He is so genuine, so outgoing,’’ says Madison Pressel, a Symetra Tour player. “He’s one of those people who makes friends easily, and he’s one of those people who always has your back, someone you can confide in and seek advice from. With Mike, you quickly realize that he doesn’t look at you as a golfer, but as a friend.”
Pressel recalls struggling with a wrist injury a few years ago that required surgery. Not being able to play, she wondered how she was going to make ends meet. Sensing she was down in the dumps, Vadala called her and offered temporary employment at Summit to tide her over while she recuperated.
“Other girls on tour have similar stories about his acts of kindness,’’ Pressel says. “That’s why when Mike asks us to help promote his tournament or other stops on the tour, we never hesitate to return the favor.’’
Thanks to Vadala’s commitment and leadership, Symetra Tour officials cite the Downey Classic as a shining example for other tournaments on golf’s version of Triple-A baseball to emulate.
“If every Symetra stop had a Mike Vadala, this tour wouldn’t have a worry,’’ Pressel says, “because there doesn’t seem to be a problem too big for Mike to solve.”
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.
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