In 1991, Jack Nicklaus arrived at Bel Air Country Club not to compete in a golf tournament but to host a clinic for a nonprofit organization. At the clinic, Nicklaus was supposed to meet amateur golf's rising star, Phil Mickelson, who had recently won the NCAA national championship. According to Bel Air's longtime head pro, Eddie Merrins, "He [Nicklaus] was always curious who his successor was going to be and he met him that day." Unfortunately, a scheduling conflict forced Mickelson to skip the event, but Nicklaus was subsequently introduced to a young man from Cypress, California, by the name of Eldrick "Tiger" Woods.
By now, many are aware of the fateful day that united Nicklaus and Tiger but few know that it was facilitated by a discrete golf charity which is one of amateur golf's greatest benefactors. The charity is called Friends of Golf (FOG), and it has supported the game for over three decades.
"Outside of golfing circles, FOG has low awareness. However, after surpassing $6 million in donations...it's getting harder to remain under the radar," remarked FOG's president, Sal Cimbolo.
On April 28, FOG hosted its 35th annual charity golf tournament at the illustrious Bel Air Country Club in Los Angeles, California. During its one-day event, FOG officials estimated they'd raise nearly $700,000 through their tournament, clinic, auction, and dinner.
Being that golf is one of the most expensive sports to play, pricey items like golf clubs, attire, and greens fees often make the game cost-prohibitive for today's youth. Not surprisingly the National Golf Foundation has reported a precipitous decline in participation, threatening the game's future.
This is where FOG has stepped up to the tee.
When deserving kids need clubs, FOG gives them a set. When college, high school, youth golf programs need funding, FOG cuts a check. When promising young players need tutelage, FOG can sometimes even arrange a lesson with one of the world's best instructors, like FOG's 2014 honoree Butch Harmon.
In addition to donating money raised from the tournament, FOG donates used golf equipment through its Turn an Iron or Wood Into Gold program (TWIG). Recently, it even received a donation 88 brand-new sets of clubs, which astonished FOG representatives and elated deserving youth golfers.
Outside of monetary and equipment donations, FOG bears another discrete yet significant distinction. Just as the Downtown Athletic Club presided over college football's Heisman Trophy, FOG is the custodian of the Ben Hogan Award, which is given annually to college golf's top player. Many Hogan Award winners have gone on to enjoy success on the PGA tour, like Bill Haas, Rickie Fowler, and Hunter Mahan.
Given FOG's success, it's no wonder that it was conjured up by two of the golf and business world's great minds. FOG was created by iconic golf teacher Eddie Merrins and late billionaire John Anderson. After assuming the coaching position of UCLA's men's golf team, Merrins needed to raise money in order for his underfunded program to become competitive. Originally called, "Friends of Collegiate Golf," he sought to raise $100 from each of the 100 most prominent businessmen in his Rolodex. When Anderson received the golf coach's request, he responded, "I'm sending you a check, but I want to do more than that," explained Merrins. And the organization was born. As the nonprofit grew in size and scope, the name was shortened to "Friends of Golf." In 2010, FOG became the first organization to ever receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Golf Coaches Association of America.
Through the years, the list of FOG tournament participants reads like a who's who from not only golf but other major sports. Along with Jack Nicklaus, many Hall of Fame golfers like Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson, Gary Player, Greg Norman, and Lee Trevino have held clinics and been the tournament's honored guests. Outside of golf, the roster includes Hall of Famers like Bobby Knight and Steve Spurrier. "As these fundraisers go," Merrins said, "it's been a model." After hearing Merrins detail FOG's history, it could be argued as the most storied charity golf tournament in America. He even described an instance in which Hale Irwin gained entrance into the 1990 US Open through his playing partner in the FOG tournament, which he went on to win.
From historic serendipity to donations and awards, FOG shows its passion for golf and for giving back. FOG and its supporters have created a scenario where everyone wins. Youth golfers gain opportunities. College and high school teams receive funding. Golf tournament participants have a fun day at one of the world's premier courses. Sponsors have a credible and proven vehicle to contribute to golf's future. With this formula applied to the next 35 years, there's no telling how many golf programs will be rescued, phenoms will receive their first set of clubs, and future legends will be united.