By Harvey Silverman:
Long before we discovered that everyone getting sick would grow the game of golf, Stuart Lindsay of Edgehill Golf Advisors frequently opined that the emergence of power carts and the resulting decimation of caddy programs was a critical factor in participation shrinkage. Fleets from Club Car, EZ Go, and Yamaha replaced groups of kids lugging golf bags across green spaces while making some spending cash and learning all aspects of the game “on the ground.”
Since 1930, many of the best, brightest and most in-need caddies have had a chance to realize a reward few people know about – an Evans scholarship, funded by the Evans Scholars Foundation and the Western Golf Association (WGA).
The Western Golf Association was founded in 1899 to promote golf in the western U.S. Remember the Western Open? It was a regular PGA Tour stop in the Chicago area until 2007. After that, it was renamed the BMW Championship that’s part of the FedEx Cup playoff series and played at various venues, not always in the Chicago market. The Western Golf Association continues to run the tournament with the Evans Scholars program the primary benefactor. (Trivia question – who won the Western Open the most times, and how many? Answer at the end of the article).
Youth caddy programs are primarily at private clubs and some high-end resorts, although their caddies tend to be older, “professional” loopers. The WGA has a handy place on their website to find a caddy program from which Evans Scholars are chosen. Youth caddy programs at public courses are few and far between – cart rental revenue is too much to jeopardize. But they do exist, and one of them is at NGCOA member Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in Denver, Colo.
Green Valley Ranch Golf Club (GVR) is what I refer to as a “golf factory.” It has an 18-hole Championship course that hosts the Colorado Opens, a fun 9-hole par-3 course, an expansive all-grass practice range and short-game areas, an indoor/outdoor teaching facility, and a First Tee with a classroom building and practice range. Want to grow the game? GVR has all the tools needed. It also has a youth caddy program that produced a 2022 Evans Scholar, Kevin (KJ) Pickford, Jr.
Kevin Laura, an Evans Scholar alumnus, is the president of GVR and CEO of both the First Tee of Green Valley Ranch and the Colorado Open Championships. A busy guy. Kevin told us, “Our caddie program is 100% youth caddies, a diverse group of boys and girls of different ethnicities and cultures. All must be in the First Tee program to be eligible to become a caddie. KJ is our third Evans Scholar at GVR. First was his sister Andrea and second was Geovani Costillo, who are graduates of Colorado University and who are now a nurse and an architect.
“Because of generous grants from organizations like the Colorado Golf Foundation, caddies are free to golfers at GVR. So all the player has to do is tip the caddie based on their performance. These and other aspects make our program pretty unique and successful. Nothing makes us prouder than advancing one of our caddies to the Evans Scholar program.”
From the Western Golf Association website: “The Evans Scholarship is a full tuition and housing college scholarship for high-achieving caddies with limited financial means. To qualify, caddies must meet the requirements of having a strong caddie record, excellent academics, demonstrated financial need, and outstanding character.”
Evans Scholars don’t just receive tuition scholarships – they live together in Evans Scholars houses on each participating school campus, so included are room and board. The average scholarship for a four-year experience is $120,000!
Pickford is one of 11 Evans Scholars chosen this year from Colorado, and one of 1,070 enrolled at 21 leading universities. It’s an impressive list of institutes of higher learning dominated by Big 10 schools in the Midwest, plus Notre Dame, Marquette, Kansas, Miami (OH), the University of Chicago, and the Universities of Washington and Oregon.
Several Evans Scholars alumni have excelled in the business world and other fields. They include CEOs Sam Allen of John Deere, Thomas Falk of Kimberly Clark, former longtime chief of Nuveen Investments Timothy Schwertfeger, Iridium Communications CEO Matt Desch, and oil and gas magnate George Solich. In addition, golf writers Jeff Rude and Bob Harig have written about their experiences as Evans Scholars.
KJ began his Evans Scholar journey in the sixth grade at First Tee of GVR, right across the street from his home, and started caddying in the eighth grade. Qualifying for an Evans scholarship requires over 100 documented loops, and KJ hustled nearly 100 the past two years. As mentioned above, he’s paid $50 by the course from a Colorado Golf Association grant – but the golfer pays nothing other than a well-deserved tip that averages between $50 and $100. “I have a few regulars,” KJ says, “but most of my loops are for GVR daily fee customers who like to walk. I’ve met a bunch of interesting people who have become friends. And I’ve learned so much about golf and how much golf can teach me about life, people, responsibility and pressure. For example, I caddied for South African Olympian Paula Reto, who finished top 10 the last three years in the Colorado Women’s Open at GVR.”
“But as far as my own golf game, I have a ways to go,” KJ admitted. “Golf will always be a part of my life – I love that we can play into our 70s and 80s – or longer!”
KJ plans to pursue a business degree at Colorado University. “I was stunned to receive the Evans scholarship – it’s still hard to believe. It’s a great accomplishment for me and also a great opportunity to fulfill a dream of a college education. I’ll be forever grateful to my First Tee and GVR family and hope to give back when my time and studies allow. And, yeah, GVR is my home course where I’ll continue to caddy, practice, play and get better.”
Trivia answer: Walter Hagen won the Western Open five times.