Charities should score well at Rocket Mortgage Classic

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The most unfortunate pro each day at the Rocket Mortgage Classic might shoot 80. Paula Love is trying not to think of bigger numbers than that, but it's tempting to fantasize.

Love is executive director of First Tee of Greater Detroit, one of six charity beneficiaries of the first PGA Tour event ever played in Detroit.

The tournament itself is a nonprofit entity, and she knows it will ultimately write First Tee a check. Some 170 other agencies will also benefit to varied extents through a program called Birdies for Charity.

For First Tee, with its modest annual budget of $500,000, the donation will likely be enough to make hearts flutter.

Fifty thousand dollars? Twice that? "We honestly don't know," Love says, and she's doing her best not to dream of even more kids learning more about life by learning about golf. 

But again, it's hard. The LPGA Meijer Classic, a sixth-year women's tournament in suburban Grand Rapids, raised $1.1 million this month for Meijer's Simply Give hunger relief charity, and one-sixth of that would be ...

"Wow," Love says. "I could live with that." But wait. Stop it!

"I think everyone is being optimistically cautious," Love says. "With an inaugural event, we have no way of telling."

Exactly, says Noelle Johnston, charity coordinator for the tournament.

"All proceeds will be going to local nonprofit organizations," she says. "As a first-year event, it's hard to pinpoint a number on what that would be."

The overall figure for the PGA Tour, PGA Tour Champions and four lesser spinoffs is hefty: $180 million generated for charities in 2017. Five of the more established events, including the venerable AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and raucous Waste Management Phoenix Open, raised more than $10 million apiece.

The PGA Tour has been criticized, perhaps unrealistically, for not ponying up more. For the six primary beneficiaries from the event Thursday through Sunday at Detroit Golf Club, complaints are unlikely.

Johnston says the Rocket Giving Fund, the 501(c)(3) that officially hosts the tournament, focused on three pillars as it invited applications from nonprofits: veterans and their families, education and opportunities for learning, and neighborhood enhancement.

A minature model of The Spirit of Detroit is displayed in front of the Fan Shop in the concession area.

Along with First Tee, whose national organization counts the PGA Tour as a founding partner, those selected are:

Detroit Golf Club Caddie Scholarship Foundation, providing help with college for the club's caddies, many of whom are from poorer communities.

Detroit Children's Fund, which works to expand successful schools, improve low performers and develop talented educators.

Midnight Golf, whose 30-week curriculum aims to improve the personal development of underserved teens, help with educational preparedness and foster an appreciation of golf.

People for Palmer Park, which works to preserve and revitalize the 296-acre park west of Woodward Avenue and south of Seven Mile.

Community Solutions, a national organization whose data-driven Built for Zero initiative is designed to help local agencies bring the number of homeless veterans in Detroit below the available capacity to house them.

In 2015, says Community Solutions executive Jamie Schleck, his organization identified 411 homeless veterans in Detroit. Partnering with local nonprofits, he says — "The real heroes of the story" — his group has cut the number to 249.

Some have needed mental health care, he says. Some have needed an apartment voucher. Some have simply needed a bus ticket home to family.

There's a $13,000 annual savings, he says, to having a veteran in supportive housing rather than on the street, where costs often accrue in places like emergency rooms or jails.

"We wouldn't want to be presumptuous," Schleck says, in terms of predicting a donation from the golf tournament. "We're grateful for anything."

The take from Birdies for Charity is also difficult to forecast.

Employed at many PGA events, it's essentially an online menu of nearby nonprofits that connects fundraising to the golf tournaments with no administrative costs or heavy lifting. With a few keystrokes, donors can pledge a set amount or make a donation tied to the number of birdies the pros will make during the event.

A birdie is a score one stroke better than par. PGA competitors usually combine for about 1,500 of them, so a pledge of one cent for each would be $15 and a dime would be $150.

The 170 organizations enrolled for the Rocket Mortgage Classic literally run from A to Z: from the Accounting Aid Society, which offers tax help and education, to Zaman International, which helps marginalized women and children meet their basic needs.

The nonprofit with the most commas on its check at a PGA event is the PGA Tour itself — an organization whose previous commissioner earned $9.2 million per year, and which had 114 of its independent contractor players collect more than $1 million apiece in tournament winnings in 2017-18.

The tour has been criticized for a comparatively low percentage of revenue donated to charity, about 16%, and for avoiding millions of dollars in taxes annually by virtue of its status.

The tour's response, as outlined by a spokesman several years ago, is that "This isn't a bake sale where there is no overhead and everything is contributed. A tournament is a major undertaking that requires significant planning, setup and operation."

Through First Tee, Love will have more than 100 children watching it unfold, starting with a kids' clinic Monday.

First Tee, she says, intertwines golf with instruction on honesty, integrity and perseverance.

"I'd like to be able to offer more scholarships," she says, at $50 per child for six weeks of one-hour lessons.

Exactly how many of those kids there will be, she doesn't know, and she's not letting herself guess. But she's looking forward to finding out.

Twitter: nealrubin_dn