Golf bodies give away a lot of money, but who decides where?

August 02, 2018
Start The Competition Until Everyone Ponies Up


There’s no mystery in how golf’s governing bodies share prize money from their tournaments: The lower your final score, the more you win.

How they share their donations with nonprofits is more complex. The PGA Tour and the U.S. Golf Association, for example, give away multiple millions of dollars every year. But they spread the money around in different ways.

The PGA Tour doesn’t have a formal grant application process. Charitable groups that want some of its money have to get in front of its executive leadership or someone connected with an event.

The tour prefers to make those decisions on the local level, explains Ron Price, chief operating officer. “It varies somewhat from event to event, depending on the history of the event, but we typically work with local leaders to figure out what the needs are in that community. We engage our volunteer leadership, and we take input from our title sponsors and other major sponsors.”

Money from the Players Championship, for example, gets spread among five counties in Northern Florida, where the tournament takes place. It goes mainly to groups that focus on health and wellness, education, and character development, says Jared Rice, executive director of the Players. He’s part of an internal committee of tournament executives and volunteers who make decisions about where they money goes.

It’s not an exact science. When a group comes onto their radar, he and his colleagues might dig deeper—How exactly does this nonprofit work? What percentage of the funding goes to overhead vs. direct giving? What is the immediate impact?—but there is no prescribed structure in place for evaluating nonprofits. “If it fits, we do it,” Rice says. “It’s not as complicated as it may seem.”

The tour donated $41.5 million to nonprofits in 2016, its latest filings with the Internal Revenue Service show.* It made grants to about 300 different organizations, from the American Cancer Society to the YMCA. Most range from $6,000 to $20,000. The biggest recipient, by a wide margin, was the World Golf Foundation, which got $11 million. Price says the vast majority of that sum was contributions to local First Tee junior golf programs, which the WGF administers.

The tour also gave $275,000 to the Clinton Foundation in 2016. The story behind that one: The tour was supporting a Clinton Health Matters Initiative project aimed at reducing preventable disease in the Jacksonville area, Price says. “They reached out and asked us to partner with them.”

The USGA, whose charitable contributions and grants totaled $5.7 million from December 2015 through November 2016, has a more structured system for its giving. All its donations fall into one of three categories: supporting golf for juniors and people with disabilities, internships at state and regional golf associations, and turf-grass research. Each gets a roughly equal share.

For many years that money was distributed by a separate foundation, and much of it went to smaller, “mom-and-pop” grow-the-game programs, says Beth Major, director of community affairs. “It was difficult to see what the true impact was.”

In 2011, USGA leadership decided to focus on larger, national programs “that we can see are scalable and impactful,” says Major, who oversees the junior golf and disabled golfer portions. Its biggest 2015-2016 grant was $704,000 for the Drive Chip & Putt junior golf competition, for example. The LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program got $500,000 and the First Tee got $400,000. The National Alliance for Accessible Golf collected $225,000.

These are much bigger than the typical USGA grant. Its support for golf association internships in 2015-2016 was usually anywhere from $6,000 to $24,000 per association. That program was then led by Emily Von Doehren, now the USGA’s chief of staff, and this year (directed by head of field services Tony Greco) it will finance 121 paid internships across the country.

The USGA’s turf-grass support is a competitive grants program whose recipients are decided by a committee of 12 scientists and other experts. Each April it sends out a call saying it’s looking for proposals on issues of importance to the game, such as water conservation, pesticide use, and resource management.

Mike Kenna, the USGA’s director of green section research, directs the effort. Most of the funds go to public universities with agricultural research departments. They tend to be three-year grants totaling $120,000. Kenna and his team are rigorous about following up with grant recipients. The USGA gets regular presentations on their progress and will often pop in for site visits to see for themselves how it’s going.

Sometimes these grants actually end up producing a little income for the USGA, because it shares in the royalties created by innovations. One current example: a cold-hearty Bermuda grass called Latitude 36 that sprang from USGA-funded research. Combined, these royalties amount to $300,000 or so a year, says Kenna.

But that’s not the real goal of the USGA’s investments in turf-grass research. Its aim is to improve the care and management of golf courses—and, not incidentally, protect its own interests. Says Kenna: “When you go and discuss pesticide use with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they’re a lot more responsive if you have data.”

Note*: This sum comes from 17 events owned and operated by the tour, including the Players Championship and some FedEx Cup events. Other events on the PGA Tour and PGA Tour Champions schedule donate additional money to charities each year, but in most cases that money is handled by the individual tournament organizers.