The Arnie Awards: Golfers Who Give Back

Arnold Palmer's legacy of compassion and generosity lived on in a terrible year.
May 10, 2021

Rob Goulet was housebound and unhappy. There is literally nothing I can do, thought Goulet, who manages Ernie Els’ business interests in the United States. This was back in mid-March 2020. His kids were home from school, the PGA Tour was shutting down, the Els for Autism fundraiser had just been canceled. “I’m looking at 30 days or more of doing nothing.”

Then Goulet happened to catch a morning news segment about a New Jersey golf club, Spring Brook Country Club, whose members were doing the opposite of nothing. They were hard at work delivering food and other supplies to health-care workers at the nearby Morristown Medical Center, which was overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.

Click. A light bulb switched on. Goulet picked up his phone and called Spring Brook general manager David Bachman, whom he’d never met. “Have you thought about taking this nationwide?” he asked.

Today, thanks to the efforts of Goulet, Bachman and many others, that idea has grown into ClubsHelp—a network of 400-plus clubs that have agreed to pitch in to address local needs. “These clubs have more than 250,000 members,” Goulet says. “With that kind of reach, we can get pretty much whatever we want.”

Hearing that emergency workers were working long hours and needed energy, they teamed with the founder of Clif Bar, Gary Erickson, to deliver more than seven million free snack bars to hospitals, first responders and food banks. Did anyone have a massage table that nurses could use between shifts? Done. Paper bags to store face masks between uses in ERs? Delivered.

Golfers all around the world have stepped up to help out people in need this year, and their contributions extend beyond the pandemic. They range from individuals who found creative ways to keep club employees from getting laid off to those who pitched in during hurricanes and other natural disasters to those who raised their voices in support of racial equality and justice.

Golf Digest has recognized Golfers Who Give Back every year since 2011. We call them the Arnie Awards, in honor of Arnold Palmer, and past winners include the likes of Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth, Darius Rucker, Toby Keith, Kelly Slater and Steve Young. In 2020, because of challenges and the countless people who confronted them, we decided to do something different: to celebrate all in golf doing extraordinary things. In their acts of kindness, charity and courage, we recognize the spirit of Arnold Palmer through this year’s winners: Arnie’s Army.

Golfers Who Give Back: Susan McGahan

Learn how Arnie Award recipient Susan McGahan took initiative in her community in the early days of the pandemic.

We’ve highlighted many of them here. Some, like Steph Curry, Peyton Manning, Bubba Watson and Cameron Champ, are familiar names. Others are lesser known. But what they all share is a passion for doing the right thing.

In a year when the need for cash was intense, golfers consistently came up with big sums. Brooks Koepka donated $100,000 to COVID relief in Palm Beach County. Tony Finau gave $100,000 to a group making personal protective equipment and also paid for bags of food for 500 Utah students and their families throughout the pandemic. South Korean golfer So Yeon Ryu donated her entire winnings from the Korean Women’s Open—roughly $200,000—to COVID relief. Augusta National Golf Club came up with $2 million to fund research and aid. The PGA of America raised nearly $8 million and distributed it to 5,200 industry members affected by the pandemic. The PGA’s contribution was funded in part by its executives voluntarily reducing their salaries.

One other commodity that was often in short supply this year: reliable information. People like Cedrick Smith, a Houston doctor who attended Hampton University on a golf scholarship, filled that void as best they could. Outside the clinic where he works, Smith serves as a resource for people of color. He has reached out via Facebook to let people know he’s there when advice or a second opinion is needed.

“I cannot tell you the number of people I hear from, usually with real simple questions,” he says. “A lot of times we can avoid the emergency room, or some simple measure thwarts a medical problem. Sometimes it’s just saying, ‘Try this, and I’ll check back with you in the morning.’ For the person reaching out, it’s the comfort of knowing there’s somebody you trust, you went to school with, or maybe know just from Facebook. I’m very aware of the challenges faced by people with black or brown skin.”

Smith recalls a woman who attended an informational session he held on Zoom. “A week later her brother was on a ventilator in Arizona,” he says. “She was told he had two days to live. I told her, ‘Do not give up on him. Here’s what you’re going to do.’ I walked her through a campaign to market her brother to the doctor. I told her things to ask about: a rotating bed and antibody plasma treatments. A month later, her brother is off the ventilator. He’s doing well.”

Even armed with the best advice, there has been so much uncertainty and fear. For Dale Moegling and Barbara Reining, members of the Country Club of North Carolina, that represented an opportunity. They modified their club’s Neighbor to Neighbor program—created a few years ago to help out during hurricane season—into a coronavirus-relief project. Along with a dozen others, they delivered food, drove elderly residents to appointments and ran errands as needed. They also worked with the club to create a small market where members and staff could buy essentials that were scarce at local groceries.

At New Jersey’s Royce Brook Golf Club, chef Mark Barrows made 25 meals three times a week for area seniors who couldn’t leave their homes because of the pandemic. The program was supposed to last 30 days but wound up running for two and half months. The club paid for the food. “It turned out to be one of the most fulfilling things in my career,” says Barrows, who has worked for Royce Brook since 2004 and was briefly laid off when the virus first struck. “After about the second week, I received an envelope with 25 handwritten notes from them, all telling their stories—widows, widowers, couples, all unable to get out. Some of them said getting our meals was the highlight of their day.”

Worried that they’d remain shuttered for months and would need to lay off most if not all their employees, many clubs passed around a hat. New Jersey’s Riverton Country Club sent out a note asking members to help keep employees’ families afloat until the club was operational again. “Within a week we had $40,000,” says Tom Kearns, the club’s president. “It was ridiculous how fast they responded. But we have a very caring membership. They feel the staff is kind of their family and they wanted to make sure they were being taken care of.”

At the Columbine Country Club in Colorado, members Garret Baum, Eric Eddy, RC Myles and Tyler Terch helped raise more than $70,000 in their newly formed Employee Assistance Fund. The money went to help more than 55 current and former staffers—from childcare costs to rent to medical bills to covering some legal expenses for an employee going through the immigration system. “These people are just such a big part of our family,” Eddy says. “It’s a great feeling to be able to help them out.”

That feeling of being helpful motivated Akbar Chisti, too. The founder of Seamus Golf, a manufacturer of headcovers and other accessories, turned his company into a maskmaking factory early in the pandemic. Even though Chisti’s main business was getting hammered as golf shops shut down and people canceled their golf outings, “I didn’t go into masks with the goal of making a bunch of money,” he says. “It seemed more like it was a ‘need response.’ ”

Chisti figures Oregon based Seamus broke even on the roughly 20,000 masks it made and shipped this spring. “But the result was not just staying afloat during that period,” he says. “We were really pleased because our customers were so happy. They had something they could wear when they went out.”

Like Chisti, Bill Welter morphed his business into something new as the virus spread. His Journeyman Distillery, which features a 30,000-square-foot homage to the Himalayas putting course in St. Andrews, began producing hand sanitizer in its stills. In the early days, Welter gave the product away to front-line health-care workers and locals who’d come into his Three Oaks, Mich., store.

Soon he began selling it, allowing Journeyman to rehire some of the 150 employees it had to let go. On Saturdays, the company donated 40 percent of all sales to a fund for employees who’d been laid off, raising more than $25,000. The company also provided free meals to former employees once a week. Journeyman’s efforts “gave us maybe just the slightest glimpse of what it’s like to work in the healthcare industry and make a meaningful impact on people’s lives,” Welter says. “It’s something we’re proud to be a part of. It was heart-warming.”

Wendell Haskins is proud of the stand he took this year, though the former PGA of America executive would not describe it as heart-warming. In June, PGA President Suzy Whaley and CEO Seth Waugh published statements supporting racial justice and equality. Haskins, who is Black and who left the PGA in 2017, responded with a sharply critical letter sharing his negative experiences within the organization and proposing 11 corrective measures.

Haskins’ letter, which he shared online, has had some positive effects. Waugh reached out to him and arranged a Zoom meeting, where they talked over Haskins’ experiences and his proposals. The PGA of America has since stripped the name Horton Smith from its annual award for outstanding contributions to education; he was a racist. Haskins, who now runs the Professional Collegiate League of basketball, reports that some of his former Black colleagues at the PGA of America have gotten raises, promotions or both.

Although he’s optimistic about the future of Blacks in golf, Haskins is also realistic. “I’ve seen firsthand when golf has an initiative and wants to accomplish it,” Haskins says. “When the USA hadn’t won the Ryder Cup for a few years, they put together a Ryder Cup task force. They went to Jack Nicklaus’ house and strategized. Former captains. Leaders in the golf industry. Players. And then they came back and won. That’s what happens when people are super-serious in golf.

“If diversity and inclusion is that important, there should be a meeting of the minds. The platitudes of ‘Yeah, we’re committed,’ that pales in comparison.”

Cole Smith, executive director of the Advocates Pro Golf Association Tour, doesn’t dispute that, but he’s confident the participation of Blacks in golf can and will get a boost from his organization. Founded in 2010, the APGA Tour’s mission is to bring diversity to golf through running professional tournaments, player development and mentoring.

This year the PGA Tour, one of its sponsors, lifted the APGA’s visibility by combining an Advocates event with the Saturday round of the PGA Tour’s Farmers Insurance Open.

Meanwhile, entrepreneurs Andy Walker and Tarek DeLavallade are reviving the United Golfers Association, founded in 1925 as an alternative to the all-white PGA. Their goal is to create a state-of-the-art developmental golf academy in Florida while supporting local programs that bring in more Black golfers.

The response to their ideas has been “overwhelming,” DeLavallade says. He has been in talks with diversity and inclusion teams at the USGA and the PGA Tour, whose commissioner, Jay Monahan, has committed $100 million to racial and social-justice causes during the next 10 years. “Right now, we feel hopeful that our message will get to the right people to make sure the legacy of the UGA continues,” DeLavallade says.

Feeling hopeful is a welcome relief in a time of so much doubt and worry. Although hurricanes and wildfires generated most of the headlines, residents in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, battled their own natural disaster in August: a freakish “derecho” storm that tore through the area with sustained winds of 100 miles per hour and up. Nearly every home in the surrounding county had some damage, and many went without electricity for two weeks, says Pat Cobb, chairman of the Zach Johnson Foundation.

The foundation partnered with Operation BBQ Relief to deliver almost 50,000 meals over eight days to people in need. It also collected $100,000 from a donor and, within a week, shared it with people in desperate need—those without roofs, without refrigeration, without food. “We were really proud of that response,” he says.

The storm also laid waste to Elmcrest Country Club, the Cedar Rapids course Johnson grew up playing. Some 400 trees fell, strewn across all 18 holes. The club never put out a call for help—“We didn’t have any power,” says general manager Larry Gladson—but members and others from nearby courses drifted over to help in the cleanup anyway. They put in more than 750 volunteer hours, and the course was open within 35 days. “We probably would’ve been shut for two months without them,” Gladson says. “That’s the way Iowans are—they help each other.”

For all the big checks and grand gestures, often it’s the quieter, under-the-radar contributions like these that linger in our memories. Consider Nathan Dryer, an 18-year-old First Tee coach who was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma two years ago. He was referred to the Make-A-Wish Foundation near his home in northern Michigan, which qualified him for a grant. But instead of going on a dream trip or meeting a favorite celebrity, Dryer, who is now cancer free, this summer chose to make a $5,000 donation to The First Tee.

“That program does so many things,” says Dryer, who went through The First Tee program a few years ago. “It’s not just teaching kids how to play golf. It’s helping them build confidence and self-esteem and giving them life lessons. I wanted to make sure that will never end.”

And how did it feel to make his donation? “It felt really good,” he says. “It made me realize how much power I can have as an individual, and how one action can have a big snowball effect and make such a difference in so many other people’s lives.”

Additional reporting by LISA FURLONG and DAVID SHEDLOSKI