News & Opinion

BMW spotlights WGA and Evans Scholars

High-profile caddies such as Michael Greller and Colin Swatton are likely to get a lot of face time this week during the broadcast of the BMW Championship at Conway Farms Golf Club outside Chicago. 

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But the third FedEx Cup playoff event, formerly known as the Western Open (1899-2006), isn’t about the famous caddies operating inside the ropes. It’s about the caddies outside the ropes.

The Evans Scholarship provides worthy young caddies with full tuition and housing grants to 19 of the nation’s top universities. This year alone, the Western Golf Association’s Evans Scholars Foundation is doling out $18.7 million in tuition and housing grants to 965 scholars, including 270 freshmen, most of whom live together for all four years in 14 Evans Scholar houses. Forty percent are first-generation college students. Since the WGA began administering the program in 1930, it has awarded $367 million in college grants and now boasts 10,600 alumni.

It seems an unlikely story at a time when most U.S. recreational players reflexively opt to ride motorized golf carts, which effectively wiped out much of golf’s caddie culture in the past half-century.

But unlike the horse-drawn carriage, caddieing hasn’t been erased completely by new technology. In fact, it seems to have stabilized and actually has grown somewhat in recent years, although in a smaller niche of mostly upscale resorts and clubs.  

Golfers have discovered that exercise is good; that walking actually qualifies as exercise; and that taking a caddie can enhance one’s enjoyment of the game. Many of those who take a caddie have concluded it is worth the sacrifice of not having a cup holder in the cart.

Moreover, the number of young people applying for the Evans Scholarship hasn’t decreased over the years, especially as college tuition costs have soared. In fact, it has increased.

John Kaczkowski took over as the WGA’s president and chief executive officer in 2010 in the midst of the Great Recession. Donations were down. Americans’ “wealth factor” had diminished. The number of caddies in college was 810.

Kaczkowski’s first move seemed audacious: he set a goal to increase the number of Evans Scholars in school annually to 1,000 by 2020.

“You’ve got to think big, and, hopefully, people will follow your dreams,” Kaczkowski, 50, a Wisconsin native who served as the WGA’s tournament director for several years, said matter-of-factly. “All good organizations have goals, and people rally around a theme. They want to be motivated to achieve a common goal. We had 810 kids in college, but we wanted to inspire people to do more.”

With more caddies in college and relentless increases in college tuition, the WGA faced big fundraising needs. And because the Evans Scholars Foundation doesn’t yet enjoy the kind of national profile as, say, The First Tee program, Kaczkowski and his staff have their work cut out for them.

“Every year, we start at zero, effectively, and we’ve got to raise that money to meet the cost of tuition,” he said.

The Evans Scholars program is supported by 30,600 donors nationwide, which includes members of the WGA’s hundreds of affiliated clubs, as well as Evans Scholar alumni. They donate a minimum of $250 each year – many give much more – to the Par Club to support the program. 

The WGA’s 645 directors serve as leaders at their mostly-private clubs, providing information and evangelizing the Evans Scholars program. They tout the 95 percent graduation rate and 3.3 average grade point average. They inspire giving. They also help identify local caddies whose academic and caddie records along with financial need might qualify them for an Evans Scholarship.

The Match Play Challenge is the major-gifts component to the Par Club fundraising campaign. Conceived by Mike Keiser, a Chicago-area WGA director and the owner of Bandon Dunes 

Golf Resort in Oregon, the program has raised $53 million since 2011 by pooling large donations to match other gifts. The Match Play Challenge has generated 320 gifts of $50,000 or more and more than 6,000 gifts of $2,500 and up. 

The seventh annual Green Coat Gala black-tie event is coming up this fall at the Peninsula hotel in downtown Chicago, featuring Nick Faldo, a four-time major champion and CBS golf analyst. Other speakers have included Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller and Curtis Strange. The event raises about $500,000 annually.

The annual Bandon Dunes retreat – it was a two-day affair in May this year – typically raises $200,000-250,000. 

And, of course, there’s this week’s BMW Championship, which begins Thursday at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, Ill. Since BMW came on board as title sponsor in 2007, the event has raised $24 million. In addition to raising revenue, the tournament has increased awareness of the Evans Scholarship as the WGA has moved it out of the Chicago area every other year to golf-starved markets such as Denver, Indianapolis, St. Louis and, next year, Philadelphia. 

BMW also endows a four-year scholarship, worth about $100,000, in the name of any player who makes a hole-in-one at the BMW Championship.  

Greller’s boss, Jordan Spieth, is one of those players.

Barry Cronin, a former golf writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, is media director for the John Deere Classic and head of Cronin Communications. He lives in Park Ridge, Ill. Email: bcronin@cronincommunications.com