Teed Off: Federal Tax Dollars For Golf

How would you like to take a trip to California’s incomparable Monterey Peninsula, play golf in the company of Arnold Palmer and Craig Stadler, and have your expenses covered by a tax-exempt organization subsidized both by big business and big government?

That is what 21 teen-agers did Labor Day Weekend when they played in the first annual First Tee Open, a pro-am tournament on the Champions Tour (the professional senior golf circuit), held primarily at the legendary Pebble Beach Golf Links.

Amy Caruso, communications manager for The First Tee, the 501 (c) (3) group that sponsored the junior golfers, emphasizes that the specific expenses for these teen-agers were covered by funds provided to The First Tee by the Champions Tour, which in turn got them from Wal-Mart, chief sponsor of the tournament. “A portion of Wal-Mart’s sponsorship will in turn be allocated to The First Tee via the Champions Tour to cover the expenses of the 21 participants who played in the event,” she explained. “Wal-Mart’s interest in this event was based on the community and educational involvement of The First Tee and the desire to reach out to children.”

But The First Tee also has received $4.5 million in federal funds over the last two fiscal years, and, Caruso says, is asking for another $3 million this year. In fiscal year 2003, Congress earmarked $500,000 for the group through the Justice Department and $1 million through the Department of Education. In fiscal 2004, Congress earmarked another $1 million through Education and $2 million through Justice. The First Tee is now seeking another $2 million from Justice and $1 million from Education.

Even if one demurs on the point that money is fungible–and gives Wal-Mart stockholders sole credit for underwriting 21 teen-agers at Pebble Beach–the $4.5 million in federal funds already given to The First Tee raises questions that taxpayers ought to be directing at our political leaders: When the Congressional Budget Office is projecting a $422 billion annual deficit, why is Congress giving any money to a group like this? Where in the Constitution does Congress find the authority to fund golf? Should the federal government force unwilling and sometimes financially strapped taxpayers to support charitable organizations they would not support if allowed a free choice?

The First Tee, to be sure, is run by good people and does good work. Former President George H.W. Bush is its honorary chairman. Its “Founding Partners” are the United States Golf Association, the Professional Golf Association of America, the PGA Tour, the Ladies Professional Golf Association and the Augusta National Golf Club. In 2002, Joe Louis Barrow Jr., its executive director, told the House Committee on Education and the Workforce that The First Tee was “created for the purpose of providing affordable access to golf to kids, who otherwise might not have exposure to the game and its positive values.”

The First Tee is associated with 158 golf facilities around the country where children, mostly ages 8 to 18, can enroll in a “Life Skills Experience” curriculum and golf for free or a minimum charge. The curriculum teaches young people golf while also instructing them in life skills (i.e. “goal-setting”) and core values (i.e. “honesty”) associated with the game.

The First Tee says the federal grants it has received were directed to this Life Skills program. They funded training books and materials, research programs and program development, technology and personnel. Some of the money from Justice funded a study of the program’s effectiveness. (It showed “74% of parents observed a positive change in their children’s display of responsibility.”)

But The First Tee has demonstrated its ability to raise money from non-government sources. In fiscal 2003, in addition to the $1.5 million it received from the federal government, it also received $2.8 million in donations from its “Founding Partners” and $5.8 million from corporations and individuals. Proceeds from the First Tee Open will be donated to the national The First Tee organization and its local chapter in Monterey County.

Each year, The First Tee holds a breakfast on Capitol Hill for members of the House and Senate. In 2002, Jack Nicklaus attended (The First Tee got its first $1.5 million). In 2003, Arnold Palmer attended (The First Tee got another $3 million). This year, Tom Watson attended. The First Tee wants $3 million more; Congress should just say no.

With a $422 billion deficit, it is irresponsible for Congress to spend money on unnecessary programs, and there is no “golf” clause in the Constitution. But just as importantly, this type of expenditure is unfair. Why should taxpayers who cannot afford to golf themselves, let alone take their own kids golfing, pay for someone else’s kid to golf for free?