Fairway To Heaven

July 15, 2006       Craig Causer      

Every golfer has experienced driving the ball and having it nestle snugly within a fairway divot. Extreme times call for extreme measures. Oh so subtly, you remove that clandestine 15th club, the one that proper etiquette dictates you not speak of, the foot wedge, and knock your ball clear when no one is watching.

With the deluge of annual fundraising golf events, it’s easy to think your golf event is getting stuck in the proverbial divot. One organization might have a big celebrity name while another has partnered with a prestigious course. More than a few nonprofits have decided to take a step off the beaten path and offer twists on the ever-present golf fundraiser.

For the past 11 years, TARC, an agency of the Tulsa Area United Way in Oklahoma, has foregone sunny days on the course for star lit nights. Its Shot in the Dark golf tournament is described as an after dusk, four-person scramble with a shotgun start. Participants tee off simultaneously at18 different holes just after sunset. The winning team is awarded $400, second place reaps $300, $200 goes to third place, $50 is presented to the winner of the "Closest to the Pin" contest, and an additional cash prize goes to the winner of the Putting Contest.

"There’s a novelty to night-time golf," said Allison Geary, director of communications at TARC. "In Tulsa, it’s been very hard to distinguish one nonprofit event from another. In this part of the country golf is right behind football as a quasi-religion. It’s hard to separate yourself from every golf tournament going on. That was what led us to keep it — that and the golfers have a lot of fun."

The organization has been operating the event with a full slate of participants — 18 teams combining for a total of 72 golfers. Individual participants contribute $95 to get in the game while a foursome must pony up $375. As TARC’s largest fundraiser, the event produces between $20,000 and $30,000 per year and has collected nearly $200,000 over the years.

The last event was held this past May 5, at the LaFortune Championship Golf Course in Tulsa. TARC’s staff did most of the site preparation, not including moving the tee boxes forward to make each hole a Par 3. The nonprofit’s staff and volunteers placed miniature globes at the tee boxes and rimmed the greens with the type of glow sticks that you see at concerts. One glow marker identified the flag and other than that, the only light provided to the players was from their glow-in-the-dark golf balls.

The organization purchases all of the glow sticks and illuminated golf balls. Each golfer receives two balls but can purchase more, which provides an additional revenue stream. Any leftover stock is put into storage for use the following year.

Five sponsorship levels bolster fundraising, although most sponsors, according to Geary, fall in either the Presenting Sponsor ($3,500), Classic Sponsor ($1,750) or Invitational Sponsor ($1,000) categories. Those levels offer incentives in terms of publicity and teams. The presenting sponsor fielded three teams, classic sponsors were allowed two teams and invitational sponsors received one team. Allowing sponsors to field teams is one way to allow people to bring in their corporate colleagues to play, Geary added.

“The main challenge for us has been invigorating the event with novelties that surround the event,” Geary said. “This year we got the University of Tulsa men’s golf coach and his team to do clinics on chipping and putting before the event started. We have that gap between having dinner and getting the orientation done and then waiting for dark to come. So we tried to fill that time with some interesting things. This year the golf team was a big hit.”

The event itinerary includes a number of activities that take place while the sun is still out.  A silent auction and putting contest coincided at 5:30 p.m. A buffet dinner was held at 6:30 p.m. followed by golf clinics, and at approximately 9 p.m., it was appropriately dark enough to tee off.

The event is held in May due to sunset times. According to Geary, if the event is pushed too far into the summer, it doesn’t get dark enough to play until 9:30-10 p.m., which translates into a very late night. In May it’s both warm and darkness comes early enough that TARC can get everyone home at a decent hour.

Evening golf might cater to the night owl, but many people enjoy taking their hacks in the morning hours. The marathon golf fundraiser held annually by Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Youth Unlimited (YU) offers the best of both worlds. Its event tees off at around 7:30 a.m. and rounds out approximately 12 hours later. In those dozen hours is the option of playing up to 54 holes.

“Most of the people play 54 holes all day,” explained Daryl Boersema, technology and communications manager at YU. “One of the things that is unique is that people don’t come and just pay $100 to play, they end up raising money to play.  This year we had 45 golfers and raised $40,000. We pay to reserve the course. After expenses, it comes away with approximately $35,000.”

The event has been held at Pilgrim’s Run golf course in Pierson, Mich., and draws local sponsors in addition to between 45 and 55 golfers per year. The nonprofit conducts a lot of direct mail campaigns, Boersema said, but the marathon golf event remains "by far" its largest fundraising event.

“We usually include a nice sit-down meal at some point during the day with a short presentation,” Boersema added. “We don’t want to spend a lot of time with sitting though. They have to be able to get their holes in.”

Sitting is not an option when it’s 48 degrees on the course and golfers are trying to keep warm. Such was the case during the Rotary Club of New Brunswick, New Jersey’s Polar Bear Golf Challenge. The event, held this past December 1 at the Rutgers Golf Course, was designed to raise money for the New Brunswick Rotary Foundation and the National Multiple Sclerosis Society of Mid New Jersey.

Golfers who paid the registration fee of $60 were allowed to bring one club and a putter. The Rotary Club paid the course a discounted rate of $20 per golfer to use the facility.

“We walked the course and played 18 holes,” recounted Mike Blackwell, event chair. “We didn’t have carts. There was a breakfast and later we had hot dogs and soda. Coca-Cola was a sponsor. We had chili and chowder on the course to keep warm. There was a big party at a sports bar at the local Hyatt afterward.”

The event has garnered anything but a chilly reception. In its first year it rallied 55 people to the course and this past year, the event’s second, 92 golfers participated. The growth has been so impressive, Blackwell said, that the next Polar Bear Challenge has already been set for December 1, 2006.

The Rotary Club of Long Beach Island (RC-LBI), New Jersey decided to forsake the booming John Daly-like drives in favor of the short game – miniature in fact. In response to a saturation of the local golf tournament scene, RC-LBI decided to hold a miniature golf tournament, complete with a barbecue.

“The original thought was to have it here on the Island at one of the many miniature golf courses, but there was no facility for the barbecue,” explained Anne Nachman, secretary for the organization. As a result, the event was conducted at an 18-hole putting green surface located at Sea Oaks Country Club in Little Egg Harbor, N.J. Both adults and kids are included in the event.

RC-LBI raises approximately $5,000 through modestly priced sponsorships. Hole sponsorships are $25.00 and event sponsorships cost $250 for event sponsors. Rather than post sponsor signage at each hole, RC-LBI displays a big board of sponsors and hangs banners around the event.

“It’s summertime and being on a resort…a $25 donation is not much, so businesses are more willing to donate (as opposed to) the standard golf tournament prices,” Nachman added.   DRFE