Southwest Florida golf: Longtime Naples tournament announcer Brendan Cunningham dies
The voice of Southwest Florida golf has been silenced.
Longtime tournament announcer Brendan Cunningham died Thursday morning in hospice care. He was 75.
Cunningham announced the golfers at Naples events such as the PGA Tour Champions' Chubb Classic, LPGA Tour's CME Group Tour Championship, and PGA Tour's QBE Shootout for decades. And he did so at other levels of golf as well.
"I tell you what, golf has been so good to me," Cunningham said, choking up during a 2018 interview at the QBE Shootout, golf legend Greg Norman's event in Naples. "I can't believe it.
"Golf has given me more than I could ever give back."
Cunningham gave back plenty over the years, including volunteering at South Florida PGA Section events for club professionals and The First Tee of Naples/Collier, which is a youth-based program.
The 2020 Chubb Classic in February was Cunningham's 30th time naming the professionals at the Champions Tour event, which was celebrating its 33rd year.
It turned out to be the last for Octagon as the tournament's owner and manager for the past 22 years. Eiger Marketing was announced as Octagon's replacement two months ago.
"Brendan has been a staple of every professional golf tournament in South Florida — and has been for the Chubb Classic almost since Day One," said Lesley Baker, who is currently a senior vice president of owned and operated events for Octagon, but also was the Chubb tournament director at one point and remained involved with the event in the years after that.
"His passion for golf and for life have inspired many, including me. His unique charm could make anyone’s day brighter. He will be missed dearly."
Cunningham's role was to announce each player before they teed off to start their round, then come back later in the day when groups were coming into the 18th green to announce the golfers' names to the crowd there. And he did that across all different levels of golf — with one constant.
"You immediately go to all of the fun times with him," South Florida PGA Section executive director Geoff Lofstead said. "It was endless. He loved the game, he loved the people in the game, and everything that it stood for. He dedicated so much of his life to volunteering to the game."
Cunningham may have stood out with his jovial presence and vibrant outfits that always included socks to match, but he took his job seriously.
"It was the most important thing of the day was starting your round," Lofstead said. "He wanted everybody to know that and feel that."
Lofstead said he had spoken Thursday morning to Cunningham's wife, Ellie, and that he did not wish for there to be a service.
Cunningham had health problems over the years — leukemia, colon cancer, colorectal cancer and throat cancer; the latter silenced his voice for four months in 2003 — but golf was always there. And always brought him back. He returned after a late October emergency tracheotomy to announce at the 2018 QBE Shootout six weeks later.
“The Southwest Florida golf community, Naples, the Shootout, and anyone that ever had the pleasure to know Brendan has suffered a great loss with his passing," QBE Shootout founder and host Greg Norman, a World Golf Hall of Famer, said in a texted statement. "He was such a dear friend of mine and the QBE Shootout for so many years — the tournament will not be the same without him and his distinctive voice on the first tee. He will be deeply missed and I look forward to honoring him in a very special way at this year’s event.”
Because of the effects of the tracheotomy, Cunningham added to his flair by wearing colorful ascots around his neck.
Cunningham was more than an announcer at all levels. He was a huge supporter of golf from juniors to professionals. He was inducted into the South Florida PGA Hall of Fame on Nov. 13, 2018, a few weeks after his tracheotomy, yet still was able to make a speech.
At the induction, the South Florida PGA Section surprised him with video tributes by tour player Hale Irwin, tour player and TV analyst Gary Koch, and tour player and TV analyst Peter Jacobsen, a Bonita Springs resident.
"The speech that I made was about what golf's done for me," Cunningham said. "I wouldn't be alive if it wasn't for golf. That is the truth."
Cunningham was born in Ireland, and moved to the U.S. when he was 5. He played football – even semi-professionally with the Roanoke Buckskins in the Atlantic Coast Football League – and was in clandestine services for 18 years. He sold insurance, and was involved with real estate.
Besides professional tour events in Naples, Cunningham has announced at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf when it was in St. Augustine and Savannah, Georgia, Champions Tour events in Boca Raton and Tampa when they were there, and also in North Carolina.
"I've had the fortune of introducing more Hall of Fame golfers than any other announcer in the world," Cunningham said.
Golf even gave him Ellie. The late legendary golfer and TV analyst Ken Venturi, a longtime Marco Island resident, introduced them.
In December 2016, he was given the South Florida PGA's Distinguished Service Award, which recognizes outstanding individuals who display leadership and humanitarian qualities in addition to integrity, sportsmanship and enthusiasm for the game of golf while helping to push forward the mission of the South Florida PGA.
Cunningham volunteered at South Florida PGA Section events over the years as well, all the way back to 1990, and including its junior tour.
The First Tee, a national program for youngsters that introduces them to core values to instill qualities that go outside the game itself and also has a local chapter, is a treasure for Cunningham, who will leave a legacy contribution to the South Florida PGA Foundation that will go toward junior golf and scholarships.
"I don't have kids," he said. "These are my kids."
And he took that role seriously as well. Even before The First Tee of Naples/Collier began, one of the predecessors was the Gulf Coast Junior Tour, which was managed by Cindy Darland, now the executive director of The First Tee chapter. Cunningham was involved even then.
"The first time you meet Brendan you become friends," she said. "He just was outstanding and was a genuine role model. He spent so much time and gave his time, and just got to know them both inside and out, and on the golf course and in life.
"That was part of the beauty. He knew them from 7 years old, and a lot of them to when they graduated. They became a part of Ellie's and his lives."
Despite the large age discrepancy, Darland said the relationship between Cunningham and the kids in the program was a strong one.
"The kids felt that way too," she said. "Even our alumni would stay in touch with him. He would show up at a tournament, either the Chubb Classic or the Shootout, and he would just beam because all of the standard bearers were First Tee kids. The kids couldn't wait to say hi. That's very special.
"He was so positive with them. He wasn't afraid to be stern at the right moments, but even when he was stern, there was a positivity. The kids took it so well because they knew him. And they couldn't wait to see what color his socks were."
Cunningham was embraced by the tour professionals who became more familiar with him after coming to Naples year after year. He grew close to Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, who once said "You're an inspiration to lunacy," regarding Cunningham's health issues, and called him "Mr. Bionic."
"I love him; I love seeing him," Norman said at the 2018 Shootout. "He's just a sweetheart of a guy. For every day he has extra on this earth, the earth is better for it because he's a good person."
Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/