Money Game: As giveaways become a bigger draw at charity golf events, the key is keeping the core mission in focus

golf balls with charity logos

Big-time branding in a very small package.

Jeffrey Westbrook

Charity golf tournaments are a fixture of the golf season, but as worthy as a charity’s purpose might be, what’s going to get you to pony up for a high-dollar foursome?

If we’re being really honest, sometimes it’s the swag as much as the mission. Tee gifts, prizes, auction items, the caliber of the course and celebrity guests — how they’re combined is what helps a charity event stand out in a crowded field. And the lure of swag isn’t lost on savvy organizers.

Last fall, in Connecticut, at Stamford Hospital’s 26th annual charity outing, each golfer walked a Covid-safe swag line at the turn. They were there to raise money for cancer research, and for their generosity they took home a Dunning golf shirt and pullover, Peter Millar shoes, a pair of FootJoy rain gloves, a dozen Titleist ProV1s, a Yeti cooler, a belt and shoe bag with the event’s logo — all stuffed into a luxe tote bag.

In years past, giveaways for the event — which pulls in $10,000 per foursome — have included Garmin rangefinders, Titleist wedges and custom putters.

“There’s a balance between being too flashy and leaving the golfer feeling like, ‘That’s great, I’m coming back next year,’” says Chris Riendeau, senior vice president of the hospital’s foundation.

Riendeau’s commitment to seductive swag is such that the head pro at Wee Burn Country Club, a Devereux Emmet design near the hospital in southern Connecticut, brings him to the PGA Merchandise Show each year.

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“All golf outings are equal in that you play golf and raise money for a worthy cause, but it ends there,” Riendeau says. “I try to make our swag buffet very experiential. When we gifted a watch, the Garmin guy was there to help people set it up. When we did wedges, the Titleist rep had fitters in the bunkers, working with people to decide which wedge best suited them. What I’m looking for is to create a complete day.”

There’s a distinct gap between that kind of bespoke swag and a sleeve of Pinnacles. But with Covid shutting down that other charity staple — galas — golf fundraisers may feel the need to up their game to keep the donations flowing.

“Going forward, I don’t see people having a big appetite for those dinners,” says Ed Brockner, executive director of First Tee of New York and New Jersey. He thinks high-end golf outings are about to boom. “They’re something people feel a lot more comfortable with.” Especially when the swag is above par.

“There’s so much money spent on stuff that people don’t want,” says Brockner, whose buying philosophy for golf attire is pretty simple. “You have to think about what you’d want to wear yourself. Some of those big, tacky logos may never make it out of the closet.”

Brockner admits that the First Tee has a leg up. Brands are eager to reach their golf-savvy donor base, so they shower them with swag at the organization’s annual outings.

(In September, the First Tee is celebrating its 20th anniversary by taking over the Lower and Upper courses at Baltusrol — No. 69 and 99 on GOLF’s Top 100 in the U.S. — with 250 guests over three rounds. Brockner won’t reveal the giveaways but says that guests will meet eight-time major winner Tom Watson.)

Tony Guernsey, a retired private banker who’s been a member of National Golf Links of America for six decades, has a long list of swag he dislikes from a lifetime of attending and hosting charity outings. There’s the vase he took home for winning a best-ball event and, worse, a plate for long-drive honors at another outing. Don’t get him started on the wine-bottle openers in canvas totes. Guernsey likes his events lean. “I’d have hors d’oeuvres and some drinks,” he says. “For a gift, maybe a bag tag that said you played there.”

At this year’s Jake, Rickie and JT shared bear hugs with Barbara Nicklaus.

Jim Mandeville/The Nicklaus Companies

The prizes at an event Guernsey helps run for The Edgartown Reading Room, on Martha’s Vineyard, are cash money — which most every winner on the tony island donates back to the charity. But pay attention, Guernsey says, to the auction items. A threesome at National, No. 4 in GOLF’s Top 100 U.S. ranking? That has brought big bucks over the decades. “I’ve had people fly in from California for it,” he says.

A few charitable events don’t need big-ticket giveaways to draw a full field. Take The Jake, Jack and Barbara Nicklaus’ annual outing at The Bear’s Club in Jupiter, Fla. It honors their grandson, Jake Walter Nicklaus, who died in a drowning accident in 2005. Each year, the event raises several million dollars for the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation.

This year, the tee gift was a leather duffel embossed with the Golden Bear logo. It contained signature glassware, golf shirts, a face mask, golf balls and an umbrella. Arguably, the ultimate swag is your pro playing partner, with the likes of Rickie Fowler, Ernie Els and Jason Day teeing it up. In an auction the night before this year’s event, one group paid $100,000 to play 18 with Justin Thomas, who’d won The Players Championship hours earlier. Winners at The Jake take home a crystal bowl — handed to them by the Bear himself.

Regardless of the charity, these events often take a ton of work to pull off. But there may be an easier way — with the accent emphatically on do-gooding. Mary Kerrigan Ward, a member at Arcola Country Club in Paramus, N.J., is the chairwoman of her club’s annual Play for P.I.N.K. outing, which is part of a network of tournaments that raise money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. The gifts are supplied to all the events by Estée Lauder. At the last Play for P.I.N.K., it was a small compact of Tom Ford eye shadows — worth $85. (Men had to settle for a golf towel.)

“Prizes are always just something simple,” Ward says. “It’s a day of supporting breast cancer research.” And one memorable gift can help remind players of the cause throughout the year.

Want Paul Sullivan’s advice on all things golf-related in personal finance? Send your questions to moneymailbag@golf.com.

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