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Saying Yes

By: Jeff Shelley


I've been active in golf for 50 years and writing about it for over half that time. One of the side benefits of such involvement in the game - and having some sort of "name" recognition, however small it may be - is that I occasionally get asked to contribute to various causes.

I have a hell of a time saying no, and after committing and getting something in my sights I'm a bit of a bulldog in seeing whatever the cause is come to fruition. That's what Irish Leos do.

In my younger and more time-strapped days, when I was traveling, writing and publishing golf guide books and editing magazines, I responded to some of these requests to participate with the caveat that I be paid for my contributions. I lay down that requirement only if the inquiries came from a recognized entity with a budget and that somehow utilizes my skills and knowledge to further their financial gain.

This situation isn't all that frequent, especially these days with the sour economy, but when it does come I'm not averse to putting a price tag on my services. After all, when bringing aboard a so-called expert you get what you pay for.

More often than not, however, I'm a sucker for good causes, especially as they relate to golf and my beloved Pacific Northwest. In the mid-'90s my old (in every agreeable sense of the term) golf-writer buddy Bob Spiwak and I - even though we were long-standing members of the Golf Writers Association of America - came up with the crazy idea of a media association that would help bring attention to golf in our neck of the woods while trying to help unify the disparate elements involved in it. So we blithely co-founded the Northwest Golf Media Association (NWGMA).

Bob, who lives in Mazama in the remote north-central region of the Evergreen State, wasn't in the big city of Seattle where all the media are, so it was up to me to pioneer our nascent organization. Thankfully, at that time I was the media director of the Fred Couples Invitational, a two-day fundraiser that Seattle's best-ever golfer created to help highlight local golf and generate funds for area charities, especially breast cancer research at Fred Hutchinson Research Center. Based in the Emerald City, this world-renowned facility is near and dear to Freddie's heart because his mother, Violet, succumbed to the disease while he was in the prime of his career.

During its over half-decade of existence, Freddie's party raised nearly $1 million, and we hosted some of the game's top players - Arnold Palmer, Phil Mickelson, John Daly, Davis Love, John Cook, Tom Lehman, Jim Furyk, Jay Haas and even Laura Davies, who became the first woman (at least to our knowledge) to tee it up against guys from the PGA Tour in a semi-official event (our total purse was around $750,000, with $150,000 going to the winner).

The first day involved pairing the pros and celebrity amateurs - including such Seattleites as Kenny G, Kenny Easley and Detlef Schrempf, or friends of Couples' like his former University of Houston roommate Jim Nantz. Before the tournament started, Gary McCord and David Feherty (who also played in the first few events) wielded microphones plugged into carts with loudspeakers for a wise-cracking horse race that became one of the most enjoyable and funniest times I've ever experienced on a course.

When I first started handling the media for the event (full disclosure: I was paid) there were just over 20 media requests; by the end of the tournament's string there were upwards of 200, including some from then-new outfits by the names of the Golf Channel and Cybergolf. Anyway, what better chance to promote the NWGMA to local media than at one of the biggest annual sporting events in Seattle? From that modest beginning, with me the first president and chief stamp-licker and members-pay-your-dues nagger, the NWGMA grew. It now has nonprofit status along with well over 100 members based in Washington, British Columbia and Oregon.

Just before this time I volunteered to be a board member of the new Municipal Golf Advisory Committee, which was run through Seattle's Parks Department and involved investigating different scenarios to operate the city's three municipal courses - Freddie's old stomping grounds of Jefferson Park as well as West Seattle and Jackson Park. Despite each course hosting upwards of 100,000 rounds a year (remember, this was in the heydays of golf in the early to early- to mid-'90s), the courses were costing the city about $500,000 a year.

Instead of reinvesting the green fees into capital improvements, the city's bean-counters were treating golf revenues like a cash cow and diverting the money to other civic areas, while paying big bucks to the concessionaires that ran the courses. That's how I became embroiled in an often-contentious debate over how best to run the facilities and be part of a small group that helped figure out a way to finance an $11 million city-wide course-improvement master plan. We settled on nonprofit management, similar to what the city of Baltimore had used to great success.

After helping to push this concept through the city's clogged bureaucratic arteries - including speaking at several public hearings where I was made to feel like a leper by the in-power concessionaires who didn't want to change their sweet arrangements and union maintenance workers who feared losing their jobs (they didn't), the nonprofit Municipal Golf of Seattle was established. Of course after the MGAC board achieved its goals and got the city to sign off on them, a new MGS board was formed that dropped us like a bad habit and quickly turned the whole thing into a major fiasco (after several early years of mismanagement, the current operational system works fine and significant upgrades to the courses, though gradual, are being made). But by then I'd done my thing and moved on.

I was also involved in early discussions with local First Tee functionaries, and even did a lengthy interview with Joe Louis Barrow, who was just starting as the group's national executive director. But completing the third edition of my book, "Golf Courses of the Pacific Northwest," and co-authoring and publishing the massive "Championships & Friendships: The First 100 Years of the Pacific Northwest Golf Association," took precedence.

Over the years I've also volunteered as a founding member of the PNGA's Publications Committee; media coordinator and advisor for the Washington Junior Golf Association; and media consultant for the Northwest Turfgrass Association, of which I remain a proud, honorary member.

When we joined Sand Point Country Club in Seattle I channeled my extracurricular energies there, serving on the board and heading up or being on various committees, particularly those named Golf and Green. I'm still on the Green Committee and chair the club's Tree Committee, which has been rewarding, and have served for several years as a club rep with the PNGA and WSGA.

So after a spell of focusing on golf in my own back yard I couldn't help but be drawn to an appeal made in fall 2011 by Karen Armstead for volunteers to help with a nonprofit called First Green, of which she is the executive director. I knew all about it, having, yes, served on the original group that helped define the foundation back in the mid-'90s. After expressing my willingness to become reacquainted with the organization, it was only a short time later that I was voted in by the First Green board as president in early 2012.

To me and many other like-minded golf lovers, First Green makes incredible sense as a way to attract young people to the game. We host and coordinate outdoor "learning labs" at golf courses that allow elementary, middle and high school students to perform hands-on experiments and tests, all with the support of their teachers and within the focus of their schools' environmental science and/or horticulture curricula. Since the start of the program over 8,000 elementary, middle and high school students in Washington State and the Portland area have participated in these field trips (for further details, visit http://www.thefirstgreen.org). And the program can work anywhere in the U.S.

The students - many of whom have never stepped foot on a golf course before and who often have been told that golf damages the environment - test water quality and soil samples, identify insects, conduct water measurements, and learn about the life cycles of salmon and other native species. In other words, they find that nature actually thrives on and around these fastidiously tended, low-mown and irrigated acreages.

First Green emphasizes the environmental and community benefits of golf courses, while introducing potential new players to the game in a fun, educational manner. Several First Green "graduates" became so enthused with their field-trip experiences that they went on to universities to study Environmental Science, Horticulture, and Landscape or Turf Management.

The nonprofit receives financial and moral support from the USGA, WSGA, GCSAA, area superintendents and regional turfgrass associations, school systems, parents, teachers and individual golfers, who all believe that First Green can play an important role in helping to clarify and demystify these massive green spaces called golf courses.

To me personally, my work for First Green could very well be the final time I say "Yes" to a request and become a volunteer. I'm not guaranteeing anything though. I've said that before and, based on my track record, it isn't etched in stone.

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