Golf has been having a boom year since courses that were closed in the pandemic reopened in June.
Even with the hiatus, rounds of golf played this year are now nearly 11% ahead of last year’s pace, according to the National Golf Foundation. In October, typically the end of the golf season in many parts of the country, rounds were up 32% over a year ago, the foundation said.
But the pandemic has also increased fundraising challenges for nonprofit groups that are trying to open up a sport traditionally associated with wealth to young men and women in need — even as their numbers have surged this year. Through the largesse of these groups, young people who could not afford to pay the course fees or buy the equipment learn the values of the sport and gain life skills.
One of the nonprofit groups, Youth on Course, subsidizes rounds of golf so young men and women can play for just $5. It has already reported a 100% increase in rounds this year, to over 400,000 from 205,000 in 2019. Memberships in the program rose to 100,000 young men and women from 70,000 last year.
“There are kids who are playing more frequently, and new kids are coming into the sport,” said Adam Heieck, chief executive of the nonprofit group, which started in 2006 in Northern California but is now in 40 states. “That puts a premium on fundraising.”
This year, he said, the organization had to curtail its traditional fundraisers, including its annual gala and several golf tournaments because too many people would be gathered in one place. But it had unexpected success with another type of fundraiser it had held before — an event called the 100 Hole Hike, in which participants solicit pledges for each hole they play with the aim of 100 in a single day. (That’s the equivalent of 5 1/2 rounds of golf.)
Heieck said the number of participants increased to 191 from 125 and the event raised just shy of $1 million, up from $680,000 last year.
“While we may not have done these huge fundraising events, we were still able to create access to golf for kids,” he said.
Still, the nonprofit group expects contributions to be down 15% this year.
“I would have thought in July that number would have been closer to 50%,” he said. “We were preparing for a very, very challenging year.”
The Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund has had to pivot, too. The fund, named for the poor young man who, at age 20, beat two of the best golfers in the world to win the 1913 U.S. Open, typically gives $2.5 million in college scholarships to 450 young men and women in Massachusetts. To raise the funds, it holds a large gala each spring that honors a prominent golfer and several tournaments each summer.
The lockdown came just a few weeks before its annual event, which was canceled. The fund set up a virtual event, which still featured its honoree, Tom Kite, a past U.S. Open champion, and in the end it raised $400,000, which was right around what it normally raised.
“People sent in their sponsorship checks and we didn’t have the banquet expenses,” said Colin McGuire, executive director of the Ouimet fund.
But the fund had to get creative in altering its annual golf marathon, which usually brings together over 100 people to play as much golf as they can in a day. Instead, the nonprofit group asked people to play as many holes alone as they could in an hour. That event raised $450,000, more than the $300,000 or so that is raised by the golf marathon.
“It ended up working out better,” McGuire said. “More people can participate when they know it’s just one hour of golf.”
Leslie Lenkowsky, professor emeritus of philanthropy at the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, said that nonprofit groups focused on youths and sport have to come up with similar ways to keep people involved this winter without asking them to come together in large groups.
He said most have been able to raise money even without in-person events.
Corporate and community sponsors have provided some stability for many nonprofit groups that serve young people through sports, he said. But few nonprofits can survive without individual contributions, including donations, annual gifts or participation in fundraisers in which people raise money from friends for completing a walk, a run or rounds of golf.
But moving to smaller events hasn’t worked for all sports-focused charities. First Tee, a long-established nonprofit group focused on teaching golf and values to disadvantaged young men and women, has chapters in all 50 states but its fundraising results across the chapters have been uneven.
One of its signature events — a PGA Tour Champions event at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, California, that both contributes financially to First Tee and pairs the organization’s young players with professional and amateur partners — was held with strict restrictions this year. That meant no young players in the field.
But the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which organizes the event with Chevron and the title sponsor, PURE Insurance, presented First Tee with a $500,000 donation. The group also made college scholarship donations to all 70 high school seniors who applied to play in the event.
“In a year with many uncertainties, there have been bright spots,” said Greg McLaughlin, chief executive of First Tee.
Many of the donors to these athletic-focused nonprofit groups received similar support from a sport when they were young.
Rich Thawley, an entrepreneur whose house backs up to the 15th hole of Pebble Beach Golf Links, said he had given money to capital projects at his alma mater, San Jose State University, for years, including a golf practice facility. But this year, he has increased his support to Youth on Course because it reminds him of when he was young with limited means to play the game.
“My financial involvement has increased as I’ve seen the good that it’s done, the lives that it’s changed,” Thawley said. “It fires me up that some kid in Texas, some kid in Nebraska or some kid in New Jersey is getting to play golf. I’ll never meet them. But I love them.”