“To most people, there are a lot more important things going on in the world right now than a golf tournament,” Gary Sobba said philosophically, and quite accurately.
The truth of this observation is predicated, however, on viewing a PGA Tour tournament through the narrow prism of a sporting event, only scanning it from ground level. Sobba, of course, isn’t most people. As tournament director of the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., he knows better. He knows that the tournament he runs—one of the nine tour events canceled as a precaution against the coronavirus pandemic—is also about helping people, offering hope, maybe even saving lives.
No tournament is just a tournament when it generates millions for local charitable organizations. The loss of a tournament is a loss for causes that need help and have become accustomed to an annual benefactor in the form of professional golf. In February, the PGA Tour celebrated surpassing the $3 billion mark in its overall charitable fundraising. A month later it was shutting down its flagship event, the Players Championship, and pulling the plug on a series of succeeding events, thus putting a crimp in the mission it so proudly broadcasts.
But even if the show can’t go on, the mission must. And thanks to nimble tournament directors, generous donors and sponsors who are staying the course—in the face of empty courses and their own fiscal adversity—charitable giving remains remarkably healthy in communities that will not see a tour event this year.
Meanwhile, initiatives from players and Tour-aligned organizations are further amplifying the Tour’s philanthropic bona fides. Those efforts include (but are not limited to):
• Ryan Palmer’s Pros for a Purpose, created to support charities impacted by canceled tournaments.
• The return of Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in a sequel to The Match, this time played for the benefit of COVID-19 relief efforts and featuring a team format that includes NFL quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
• The upcoming TaylorMade Driving Relief, a $3 million televised charity skins match featuring World No. 1 Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff, and supported by UnitedHealth Group to raise money for the American Nurses Foundation and CDC Foundation.
• And the #LikeArnie campaign, launched by the Arnold & Winnie Palmer Foundation, to support America’s youth and educators, including those in a number of Tour communities. The foundation runs the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the last PGA Tour event that was completed.
“We’ve had a number of players who have stepped up, we have great sponsors and partners who have asked What can we do to help? and we’ve seen some incredible stories of efforts and activations that are keeping alive the story of giving back,” said Tom Alter, vice president of communications at the PGA Tour.
“A tournament is one week a year, but its impact is 52 weeks a year. We know that our golfers are going to a community to compete and people are going to attend that event and enjoy it, but everyone involved is aware that at the end of the week we’re going to leave money behind that means a great deal to a great many organizations,” Alter continued. “So when we don’t have a tournament, it’s not really about 144 or however many players who aren’t getting a paycheck. It’s really about the charity money that will not have been raised and distributed—at least not to the same extent as if the tournament had been held.”
It was unavoidable that charity would take a hit amid a truncated schedule, yet the tax-exempt charitable 501(c)(3) organizations that run tour events have found ways of fulfilling their mandates as best they can. Case in point: the Zurich Classic in New Orleans. One day after what would have been the final round of the event, officials announced the tournament would be giving $1.5 million to its nearly 60 organizations, including the host Fore!Kids Foundation. That amount is in line with previous years, when the tournament was played in front of thousands of spectators. Much of that can be attributed to the title sponsor.
“We’ve been blessed. You look at Zurich’s history here before my time, and they could have walked away when [Hurricane] Katrina hit in 2005, but thank God they didn’t,” said tournament director Steve Worthy. “New Orleans has been hit pretty hard. We’re a hot spot for the virus. Zurich has really invested in this community in a difficult environment. And we’ve had a lot of other supporters who moved money to next year. We have a very committed core group.”
“We’re happy to say the cancellation of this year’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans isn’t the end of the story,” Kathleen Savio, CEO of Zurich North America, told PGATour.com. “We’re honored to work with the PGA Tour and the Fore!Kids Foundation to continue the tradition of giving to nonprofits in New Orleans, so that they can continue to help people during a critical time of need.”
Jon Drago can tell a similar story of commitment at the AT&T Byron Nelson, which was to have been played last week. The Dallas-based tournament has been the tour’s unparalleled beacon of charitable giving, raising $163 million since the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, founded 100 years ago, aligned with the tour stop in 1968.
“I can’t tell you how overwhelmingly supportive our corporate community has been,” said Drago, who was hopeful that the tournament could distribute upwards of $3 million, most for the Momentous Institute, which serves children and families through mental health and education programs and was voted charity of the year on the PGA Tour in 2019. “I think it says something about golf in general that we continue to be in a position to do what we have been able to do in the past.”
Drago pointed out that for two straight years the Nelson has not been able to stage its Wednesday Pro-Am. And yet, it has been able to hang onto the pro-am entry fees that serve as one of its primary charity fundraisers—which is the case at just about every tour event. “We were rained out on our Wednesday Pro-Am last year. Never hit a shot,” he said. “This year, again, completely sold out, never hit a shot. But we had people who paid both years and supported the charity and didn’t ask for it back. And that’s just amazing.”
‘One guy said on Twitter that he was donating the amount of money he
would have spent on beer at the [AT&T Byron] Nelson.’ —Ryan Palmer,
who started a program to give money to tournaments canceled due to
Alter said he is aware of many tour members who have dug into their own pockets to help various tournament causes or COVID-19.
One example is Ryan Palmer, who with his wife, Jennifer, launched Pros for a Purpose. The Texas native got the idea after reading that Steve Stricker, through his foundation, would be donating to events that the current U.S. Ryder Cup captain was scheduled to play before they were canceled.
A four-time Tour winner, Palmer personally got it rolling with a $20,000 infusion. Thus far, he has raised more than $145,000. “We think it’s a great way to help a little bit and to say thank you to the tournaments that host us every year but can’t this year,” said Palmer, who invites fellow players, fans, volunteers and officials to visit the website.
“One guy said on Twitter that he was donating the amount of money he would have spent on beer at the Nelson,” Palmer said. “One of the great things is you can go onto the website and designate which tournaments could get help. I wanted to help events I already committed to, like New Orleans. Look, it’s going to be a rough year for a lot of them.”
Some events were still calculating their balance sheets, including one of the first ones hit, the Valero Texas Open in San Antonio scheduled for the first week of April.
“We’re still working to determine our total impact on charity, but we feel strongly, thanks to Valero and other significant partners, that we’ll be able to support several of our annual charity organizations,” Larson Segerdahl, Valero Texas Open tournament director, said via email. “We hope to have greater clarity on this in the near future.”
Ditto for Sobba at the Wells Fargo Championship, who has been crunching the numbers to estimate what assistance he can extend to the 55 organizations in the greater Charlotte area that benefit from the tournament. “Will our level of giving be impacted? Probably,” he said. “But we’re happy that we will be able to do a few things that we’d like to do, that matter greatly.”
“A lot of people have been infected by this disease, but when you’re talking about all of the people who have been affected by it, the numbers are far greater. It’s exponential,” Drago said. “In this current environment, our mission takes on greater urgency, because never have our charities needed the help more.”