Driving for Charity

With a noticeable increase in the number of charity golf tournaments popping up in the Wilton area, residents may be asking: when did charity golf tournaments become so popular in Fairfield County?

The year 2008, Wiltonian and former pro-golfer Greg Jacobsen says, the same year the Great Recession struck the area. Mr. Jacobsen is a  former college and professional golfer who once played on the Space Coast mini-tour.

Already in 2013, Wilton has seen (or will soon see) a golf fund-raiser for the Trackside Teen Center, the Folds of Honor tournament at Rolling Hills Country Club, a Wilton Kiwanis fund-raiser, a tournament to benefit the Wilton Family Y, and Mr. Jacobsen’s own “The Jake” tournament for multiple sclerosis research at the Ridgefield Golf Club.

Charity tournaments can raise a great deal of money for organizations. At this year’s Folds of Honor tournament at Rolling Hills Country Club, participants raised over $90,000 for scholarships to be given relatives of military members who had been deployed to combat zones, said Elizabeth McGann, the communications director at the club.

“Between greens fees, the silent auction, and the live auction, there was great support from our membership,” she said. “Last year we netted $35,000, and this year we netted almost $90,000. When one hears the story of these families, you realize its a no brainer to help them anyway you can.”

A wealth of golf knowledge, Mr. Jacobsen has been a consistent member of the golf community since he was 12 years old.

“I participated all through the rise of golf,” he said in a recent interview. “I lived the later stages of Arnold Palmer’s [domination], and the middle of Jack Nicklaus era. Then it got quiet after Jack retired. Then along comes this guy out of southern California who can play the game like no one else: Tiger Woods.”

With the rise of Tiger Woods, Mr. Jacobsen saw golf reach a new level of popularity. There had never been a figure who had inspired an entire generation of young people to “pick up the sticks” than Mr. Woods.

“The whole industry went gangbuster with Woods,” Mr. Jacobsen said. “His rise coincided with the growth of anything and everything to do with golf. We in the industry thought there was nothing that could go wrong with golf.” The only negative aspect of the industry was “the limited number of golf courses and access to good courses. That’s how we looked at it for decades,” he said.

However, he said, the 2008 recession’s worst effects were felt by any segment of the economy funded by discretionary money to provide for leisure. Even in 2013, the golf industry is still experiencing a decline. Public courses have lost an average of 15% of their players this year, Mr. Jacobsen said, while private clubs saw an 18% decrease in membership. With rapidly declining profits, clubs needed a new revenue stream in order to say afloat.

Jim St. Pierre, a former University of Hartford player and the assistant golf professional at the Redding Country Club, said that his course has seen an average of 15 to 17 players drop their membership every year.

“We’ve had 10 to 12 new members every year. The new members have been the same every year,” he said. “Mostly, a lot of the members aren’t coming out as much as they used to to play golf. They’re required to be at work more, not playing as much golf. I think they’re more worried about keeping their jobs than they used to be.”

Mr. Jacobsen says one of the most successful recession-era strategies for golf clubs was to open the field of play to more levels of golfer.

“Courses are trying to make the courses easier and more accessible from a golf perspective,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than having a very difficult golf course, where a newcomer shows up, has a terrible time, and never comes out again.”

While many clubs are making their courses more accessible to a wider skill level of golf, Mr. St. Pierre said the Redding club had taken no steps to change its course. Instead, it worked to improve its non-course facilities to attract more families to the club.

“We have not made any changes to the course,” he said. “But, we did a big pool house renovation, and added a short game facility. As far as the golf course goes, we haven’t changed anything. We’re actually a pretty big family club. Most of our members are family memberships. Those are the ones that are sticking around.”

Pamela Lancaster, a board member at the Rolling Hills Country Club and chair of the youth committee at the club, said that she has seen a greater desire by members to participate in charity tournaments than in the past. This, she feels, is great for traditionally private country clubs, and charitable organizations.

“I think there is more overall interest — from both men and women — in being involved in these kinds of events,” she said. “[The membership] really wants to host important events like this, and it helps the club from a public relations standpoint.”

Almost universally, opening the course for charitable tournaments has been a win-win for clubs and the charitable organizations that benefit financially.

“One of the best strategies [for clubs] was ‘let’s open the club up to more and more events,’” Mr. Jacobsen said. “They would try anything and everything that could bring in revenue. Charitible organizations have really, really benefited from that. They were able to gain access to private and public clubs they didn’t have a chance to work with before.”

Rob Ford, the head professional at Rolling Hills for 10 years, said opening up great courses to charitable organizations worked right in line with the charitable nature of the Professional Golfers Association.

“The PGA has always been made up of very charitable thinkers,” he said. “Its members always want to give back to the game, and to the communities which surround it.”

Ms. McGann said charitable events have always been a large part of the club’s schedule. All a non-profit organization has to do, she said, is “know a member willing to sponsor their event.”

“I think people want to be able to give back to the community in this area of Fairfield County,” she said. “It’s great to be able to give back and have fun. To not just write a check, but get together with other people who are passionate about a charity to really see and learn how your donation is helping people.”

Though many clubs have often been willing to host charitable tournaments, many organizations found the events to be cost-prohibitive in previous years, said Mr. Jacobsen. The recession’s effects, however, drastically lowered the cost of hosting a small to medium-size charity event.

“Golf was always a good fund-raiser for charities, but it was an expensive decision for those organizations,” he said. “A lot of charities had said ‘it’s going to be difficult to get the turnout we need, so we’ll do something else.’ This rise in popularity could never have happened unless golf revenue had gone down so rapidly.”

Ms. McGann said that with a full field of players this year, her club’s Folds of Honor tournament will raise more money for veterans’ initiatives than ever before. She said members of the club are happy to participate in tournaments because they can really see where their money is going.

“You get to listen to speakers, see the videos of those who have benefited from the Folds of Honor scholarships, and play with the veterans you are helping. That’s much more meaningful than just writing a check.”

Charitable giving is at the heart of these tournaments, Mr. Jacobsen said, but the fun of playing a round of golf is what makes them remain so popular.

“You get people who have combination of being interested in the cause, and don’t mind playing playing hooky from work for an afternoon of golf. People simply turn out and play golf fund-raisers. The economics are there, the facilities are there, the courses want these things. It’s a perfect situation.”