Charity GolfI recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin McKinley, who is the director of golf and skiing at Treetops Resort in Gaylord, Michigan, which was voted one of the top 25 golf resorts in America according to Golf Digest. Kevin has been working in the golf industry since 1996 and has been at the helm of Treetops’ golf courses and ski hills for the past four years.

Kevin has incredible experience when it comes to planning, organizing, directing, and even playing in charity golf outings. I am very grateful to him for taking the time to sit down and answer a few of my questions.

JB (Jim Berigan): Thank you, Kevin, for spending some time with Step By Step Fundraising. We greatly appreciate your time, and we are grateful for the expertise you can share with us. First off, let me ask you, are golf outings still a popular form of fundraising?
KM (Kevin McKinley): Yes, they’re definitely still very popular. I can tell by two different indicators that this is true. First, we here at Treetops have many, many golf outings scheduled for this summer. Secondly, we are constantly being asked by other golf courses and non-profit groups to make donations to their golf outings at other courses. This is a reciprocal arrangement we have with them. They’ll donate to us when we ask, and we’ll donate to them when they ask.

JB: Why do you think that golf outings make good fundraisers?
KM: First of all, golf outings are very flexible and can be added onto in so many different ways. This means that a charity’s ability to raise money is higher. For instance, a golf outing could include a “skins’ pot”, a “beat-the-pro” hole, a “closest to the pin” contest, a longest drive competition, raffles, silent auctions, and mulligan sales to name just a few of the money making opportunities that can be added to the basic package. Not all fundraisers have this kind of room for growth.

The only concern with this opportunity is the question, when does too much become too much? Each group has to find the right balance between adding on revenue-making activities without overwhelming their golfers.

In addition, a golf outing is an excellent opportunity to have a great time, be outdoors in a beautiful setting, mix and mingle with old friends, make new acquaintances, and even do some business. I would even say that many non-profits use this networking angle as a selling point when they are trying to recruit teams.

But, sometimes, a golf outing is just a good excuse to take a day off from the office!

JB: What is the average crowd that attends a golf outing?
KM: In this area (northern Michigan), we typically get a lot of non-profit groups. So far this year, the major local events we have hosted have been the United Way, our local hospital, and the chamber of commerce. By and large, these groups do their best to recruit teams from within their service community.

However, some groups have a wider draw. For instance, the hospital can pull not only from its own staff and regular donors, but also from all of their outside vendors. Therefore, their scope broadens somewhat and their profit increases.

Then, we at Treetops also run our own golf outings, as well. The Pepsi Fall Charity Invitational is a monster-sized event that we hold each in September, going back for twenty years now. This benefits a number of local charities that we select.

Over Labor Day weekend this year, we’ll be holding our very first “Patriot Golf Day”, which is a nation-wide initiative of the PGA of America, and that raises money for families of fallen soldiers. We expect this outing to be very successful, as well.

The outings that we run on our own are very large. For instance, the Pepsi event that we host each year averages anywhere from $35,000 to $50,000 each year. The local non-profit totals fluctuate from year to year, depending on the economy. I have noticed the sad trend that as the charity’s need increases, their ability of supporters to give decreases.

From an overall perspective, I’ve seen groups earn as little as $1,000 and as much $50,000 in one day. How successful a group is has a lot to do with their ability to recruit a large number of teams, add on numerous cash raising events, and sell corporate sponsorships. The course it’s hosted at also has something to do with the group’s ability to raise significant money.

I’ve also noticed that more and more women are attending golf outings. In fact, there is an organization called the Executive Women’s Golf Association. They are very strong right now and growing. If you’re looking for a way to increase the number of golfers at your outing, try to recruit some of these all-female teams.

JB: What are some of the more interesting golf outing formats you’ve run or played in?
KM: Really, the best format for a golf outing is the tried and true “Scramble”.

A scramble is usually played with 4-person teams, but 2-person scrambles are popular, too. At a 2-person scramble, handicaps are usually applied; at a 4-person scramble, handicaps are usually not applied.

In a scramble, each player tees off on each hole. The best of the tee shots is selected and all players play their second shots from that spot. The best of the second shots is determined, then all play their third shots from that spot, and so on until the ball is holed.

(Definition of golf scramble provided by Brent Kelly at

One of the most important advantages of a scramble is that it really doesn’t matter how difficult the golf course is. With four people playing, you’re bound to get at least one good shot each time the team addresses the ball. It really makes it so the course isn’t too tough.

One of the common lines I hear at golf outings is “This is the only time I golf each year.” When I hear this I assume that this person isn’t very good or serious about the game. The scramble format allows this person to participate and enjoy the day without feeling too frustrated at himself for holding the team back. It also speeds up the day for these kinds of golfers.

Also, scrambles increase the level of camaraderie at the event, because the players always hit from the same spot instead of being spread out .

Besides the scramble, there is a format called the “Best Ball Event”. This is often confused with the scramble, but the difference is that all four team members play the hole individually, but only the best score on each hole is recorded.

I’ve also seen an event called “The Shamble”

A shamble is a type of golf tournament that combines elements of a scramble with elements of stroke play.

Like in a scramble, all members of a team (usually four) tee off and the best ball of the four tee shots is selected. All players move their balls to the spot of the best ball. From this point, the hole is played out at stroke play, with all members of the team playing their own ball into the hole.

So: select the best shot off the tee, move all balls to that spot, then play individual stroke play until each member of the group has holed out.

(Definition provided by Brent Kelly at

The major drawback I’ve found when you leave the traditional scramble format is that not everyone is as familiar with the rules. Because of this, I’ve seen a lot of confusion, which leads to an unpleasant experience. When I run golf outings, I want everything to be as fair and consistent as possible. Therefore, I personally like to stick with the scramble.

JB: Can you tell us a bit more about some ways to pump up the profit at a golf outing?
KM: At Treetops, we try to get pretty creative. We want groups to make as much money as possible, so we’ll offer to help structure the day to maximize their income.

One of the events that has become very popular is called “Beat the Pro”. Here, we will station one of our golf professionals at a selected hole for the entire day. When players reach this spot, they can choose to challenge him. In order to do this, the golfer has to make a wager based on his chances of beating the pro. If you have a pretty good pro, the charity can make some great money in this manner.

Another opportunity to make some extra money is to select one hole and draw a chalk circle, maybe eight feet in diameter, around the hole. People will bet that they can land the ball in the circle in one shot. This is usually done on a shorter par three hole.

We have also set up an event where we take our pro who is a long distance driving specialist and place him on one of the hardest and longest holes. Players can pay him $20 or $40 to drive their balls for them, so they get in a much better position than they could probably get themselves.

We’ve also had a lot of success in setting up tournaments on our practice putting green. We’ve actually taken golf tees and string and created our own miniature golf course! It’s a lot of fun, and we make money for the group.

Another option we’ve been working on lately is to invite groups to turn their one day event into a two day event. We like to set this up over a weekend. So, while the main golfing would be done on Saturday, we could host a smaller event on Friday evening- maybe a par three course or just nine holes. It makes more money for the charity, plus we get to have the guests stay in our hotel!

JB: Can you tell me a little bit about how important corporate sponsorships are to the overall success of a golf outing?
KM: Yes. Corporate sponsorships can really put an organization over the top in terms of financial success. There are many different ways to structure sponsorship packages, but no matter which level a company chooses, I think it is vitally important that you really take care of the sponsor. You want to make sure that the signs are professionally done and very attractive. You want to make sure that all spellings and logos are correct.

One of the things I like to do when I’m directing an event is surprise the teams. For example, if I know that a team is sponsored by a specific company, I’ll get their company’s logo ahead of time and put it right on their cart sign. I’ve heard nice comments from the players when they see this. It’s nothing earth-shattering, but they do appreciate it this extra touch. You do hear a bit of buzz about that and people appreciate that.

Also, if there is a title sponsor for the event, I’ll put their logo on every single rule sheet, and if there are banners, we’ll make sure we move them from the golf course to the banquet afterwards.

JB: What’s the worst horror story at a golf outing you’ve ever heard?
KM: I personally haven’t experienced it, but I’ve heard that some courses have double booked two outings on the same exact course and at the same exact time. That would be a nightmare. You are going to have a lot of unhappy people at the point. I’m glad that I’ve only heard about that and not experienced it!

JB: Let’s talk a little bit about prizes. How important are they to the golfers? Should groups put a lot of money into them?
KM: It really depends on the event itself. At the recent hospital outing at Treetops, they pulled a local crowd, but they also had all the outside vendors. There were 200 players at that event spread over two courses. The prizes, which were trophies, were awarded for 1st 2nd 3rd place, and I would guess that they only spent around $300 on them, which is not a lot considering all of the people in that event and how much they ended up making. Speaking from experience, that is not a high amount at all. But I’ll tell you, I don’t think it mattered.

On the other hand, our Pepsi event goes to the other extreme. It is a pro-am tournament, which means that there is one golf pro and three amateurs on each team, and prizes are much more expected. One of the main draws is our skins pot, which can get very rich very quickly.

We have two divisions and there are 15 to 17 teams total that receive prizes. Each player on one of these winning teams receives a prize that has a retail value of at least $100 for each player. Now, fortunately, many of our prizes are donated by our regular vendors, but we still do kick in some money ourselves.

For the average nonprofit, though, I can truthfully tell you that I don’t think prizes are that important. If you can get them donated, that’s great, because prizes can cost a lot of money and in my experience, I haven’t seen them make or break the reputation of an outing.

I can say that one of the most common prizes at golf outings are free rounds of golf at that or another course.

JB: How important is the food at a golf outing? Does this play a part in golfers deciding if they’ll attend an event or come back to it the next year?
KM: If the golf outing in question is a high-end event, I would expect that food is much more important. For the average non-profit, though, my expectation is that I’m going to eat a hot dog that day.

But, an organization can use food as a surprise. By being creative, we’ve been able to give a group a very nice luncheon, with chicken or beef for not much more money than a hot dog/hamburger meal. In this case, the golfers were very pleasantly surprised and that reflected well on the non-profit.

In many cases, the main food event comes at the end of the day, so the quality of the meal can leave a lasting impression. In that way, food can be very important.

JB: What’s the best way for a group to handle a weather disaster?
KM: If it turns out the golf is totally washed out, and there’s a dinner planned, that can still happen. But it’s up to the golf course to be fairly creative with you.

Ask the staff at the course if there is a re-schedule date, which is a possibility. But finding a new date can be difficult, since the outings are so tightly scheduled throughout the season. Groups should ask about this ahead of time.

Sometimes, it is possible to turn an 18 hole event into a 9 hole outing.

The good news, at least in this part of the country, is that there aren’t a lot of total washouts. With all the new weather technology, we have a real advantage in having very precise forecasts. On one occasion, we bumped our banquet to the beginning of the day and golfed later because we knew the weather would be cleared-up by then. It’s important to keep an open and flexible mind.

JB: What are the most common mistakes a group makes in running a golf outing?
KM: I would say the most common mistake I’ve seen a group make is choosing the wrong golf course. Not only is an attractive course desirable, but so is connecting with a staff of golf professionals who will bend over backwards to ensure your event is the best it can be.

It is often very tempting to take the cheapest price you can find for a course, but this strategy can actually end up working against you. By getting the cheapest prices, you will sacrifice amenities such as excellent customer service, a staff of multiple golf professionals, and the lure of the course itself.

Actually, in my experience, price isn’t usually that much of a difference, maybe $5 to $10 more per person for a top-notch venue. And, for many of your players, getting to play at such a higher caliber course would actually be a treat for them. The rate for a golf outing will likely be less than if they came out on their own to play.

JB: Do you have any suggestions for ways groups can save money at a golf outing?
KM: As I mentioned before, I think groups can save a lot of money by downgrading the level of their prizes or just going with trophies. For most non-profit groups, the golfers are there to have fun and support the charity. They aren’t going home afterwards, wishing they had gotten a bigger or better prize.

I have also seen many groups add a silent or live auction to the banquet portion of the golf outing. This can be dangerous if you end up spending money to purchase the items for bid. I would suggest staying away from that, because it can really cut into your overall profits.

JB: What are some wise questions a group should ask a golf course before booking an event?
KM: The number one question I think groups should ask the course before signing a contract is if there will be a specific person assigned to your group, who will make sure all the particular details of your event are taken care of ahead of time. At treetops, we have a point person who is called the tournament director. His job is to be in direct contact with all the group leaders to find out well in advance to find out what kind of things they need. Many courses don’t offer this feature, and you end up talking to whoever answers the phone. That can’t make a group feel very confident.

JB: Kevin, thank you so much for your time. For my last question, I’d like to ask you what makes a golf outing at Treetops so special.
KM: I think there are a couple of things. First is the tradition, the history. 1987 was the first year the course was open but in that short time, we’ve had a lot of golf legends who have played here. I also think that the terrain we have up here in northern Michigan is incredibly beautiful. On most of our holes, the view seems to go on forever. It’s amazing just to be here every day.

This article is part of the Golf Series

Here’s a list of each of the articles in this series:

1.  Three Important Steps to Planning a Charity Golf Outing by Jim Berigan

2.  5 Reasons Why a Golf Outing Can Benefit your Non-Profit by Jim Berigan

3.  5 Money-Making Games to Play at your next Golf Outing by Jim Berigan

4.  Interview with Kevin McKinley, Golf Pro at Treetops Resort, Gaylord, Michigan by Jim Berigan

Posted on 09 March 2011

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