Commentary

Woods' foundation carries on mission

Updated: March 24, 2010, 9:36 AM ET
By Mike Fish | ESPN.com

Greg McLaughlinGetty ImagesGreg McLaughlin, president of the Tiger Woods Foundation, seen with Woods in 2008.

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- As a somber Tiger Woods hunkered down for his nationally televised mea culpa last month, his longtime pal and the head of his charitable foundation, Greg McLaughlin, was perched in a front-row seat just to the golfer's left. Also among the select few invited and traveling across country to PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to witness Woods' scripted performance were four of his foundation's vice presidents.

The best professional golfer of his generation had barely begun his 13 1/2-minute apology, fresh off a mention of his wife and young children, when he broached the impact his personal transgressions have had on his Tiger Woods Foundation. Woods offered apologies to the foundation staff, the corporate sponsors who in the past had so eagerly backed his charitable endeavors, and the young people touched by his efforts. "I know I have bitterly disappointed all of you," he said slowly, carefully. "I have made you question who I am and how I could have done the things I did. I am embarrassed that I have put you in this position."

The sponsors of his foundation haven't jumped ship, even as some such as AT&T and Accenture have severed ties with Woods himself. And if the foundation folks hired by Tiger thought his transgressions embarrassing, they're not letting on. As if reading from the same talking points, they profess to be so consumed by their work -- most specifically the daily operation of the Tiger Woods Learning Center here in Southern California -- that they pay no mind to the salacious accounts of his female conquests, or even the question of when he'll resurface on the PGA Tour. They say the busloads of students still show up daily, and the lone concern voiced by parents is whether the educational programs and scholarships might go away.

[+] EnlargeGreg MacLaughlin
AP Photo/Jae C. HongMcLaughlin meets reporters Dec. 1, 2009, to address questions about Woods' car crash.

"I was certainly disappointed when I heard all of this," says McLaughlin, the foundation president, who met his future boss when Tiger was a scrawny teenager with a grown man's golf game. "I think the fact that he acknowledged that he made mistakes and is working to rehabilitate himself and be a better person, that is what I took from it."

McLaughlin indicated he has spoken with Woods a "few times" over the past three months, with the gist of the conversations being that Tiger has made clear that, despite the distractions and upheaval in his personal life, he remains committed to his foundation.

"I think at least relative to our staff and our board and our sponsors, which are three vital components, as well as our constituents -- our kids -- everyone has been very supportive," McLaughlin says. "And everyone believes in the work that we are doing. They're very focused on that. And they have been supportive of our mission. So for us, nothing has really changed."

That sentiment rings true judging by appearances at the learning center, an airy two-story structure that sits on 14 acres overlooking a driving range and a series of putting greens. On a recent afternoon, junior high and high school students huddled around computers finishing homework. Another smaller group could be seen working on a rocketry project. Others were in after-school programs filming videos or being introduced to an impressive cadre of career choices such as biotechnology and forensic science, all of which supplement programs available in local schools.

Opened in 2006 on land leased from Orange County, the place has the feel of a small college campus, with spacious commons, the bells and whistles of "smart classroom" technology and at least 300 laptops available to bright, engaged kids. A huge bronze sculpture of Woods and his father sits just inside the main entrance. A large photo of former President Bill Clinton and Woods cutting the ribbon at the center's opening hangs in a corridor.

And -- not surprisingly -- the center has a golf academy and two instructors on staff to school those interested in Tiger's game.

Inside the 240-seat Target Auditorium (Target was a founding sponsor), Roman Gonzales is heard lecturing his class of 11 beginners on more than just the toe, heel and face of a golf club before heading out to the driving range. "You need a 2.0 [grade-point average] if you want to be part of this program and play golf," says Gonzales, outfitted with a black Nike windbreaker. "You can be the greatest golfer, but you need good grades if you expect to play in high school or collegiately. … The focus here is simple: Get better at golf and maintain your grades. This place will help you get through high school and to college. People are here to help. Just ask."

Woods among charity leaders

Say what you like about Tiger's boorish behavior and marital infidelities, but, if nothing else, he's put his franchise name and millions of dollars in the right place. According to those who monitor nonprofit foundations, few athletes are in his class when it comes to charitable endeavors, the most notable being cyclist Lance Armstrong -- whose foundation last year donated $50 million to cancer research -- and the likes of former tennis champion Andre Agassi and NBA star Yao Ming.

[+] EnlargeEarl and Tiger Woods Statue
Mike Fish/ESPN.com Woods and his late father, Earl, created the Tiger Woods Foundation in 1996.

Back in 1996, when he turned pro, Woods and his late father, Earl, created the Tiger Woods Foundation as a vehicle to educate and provide grants and scholarships to benefit young people. The venture has grown to include three related nonprofits bearing the golfer's name: the Tiger Woods Foundation in Irvine, the Tiger Woods Charity Event Corporation and the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim. According to the latest federal tax filings, the nonprofits have amassed a combined $75 million in net assets.

While the learning center is an impressive physical structure, the more well-known Tiger Woods Foundation serves as the primary vehicle to distribute grants and individual college scholarships. In the most recent tax year, the foundation awarded $2.9 million, with its largest grant of $817,000 transferred to Woods' learning center in Anaheim. The bulk of the grants are $5,000 and less, though other more notable recent gifts include those made to the International Youth Foundation in Baltimore ($350,000), the Metropolitan Tulsa Urban League ($150,000) and the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix and Youth Sports Trust in London (each $100,000).

As for the modest number of recipients tied to sports, a $50,000 check was written to the Boston Red Sox Foundation, as well as $15,000 to the Joe Nuxhall Children's Center in Fairfield, Ohio, and $5,000 to the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation.

However, the moneymaking vehicle driving Woods' foundation is the Tiger Woods Charity Event Corporation, which functions as an event planning company and draws the revenues to fund the foundation and learning center. It annually stages glitzy events such as the AT&T National Golf Tournament, the Chevron World Challenge Golf Tournament, the Tiger Jam Benefit Concert and the Tiger Woods Block Party in Orange County.

While charity watchdogs generally give the foundation high marks, some question the significant expenses incurred by the nonprofit in hosting these events. On its most recent tax return, the Tiger Woods Charity Event Corporation reported having spent $32.7 million staging the two golf tournaments -- including $15 million in television network fees and tourney purses -- and star-studded entertainment events like the Tiger Jam, while turning a $3.5 million profit.

"If you have a ratio of $32 million [expenses] and $3 million [profit], you are so upside-down it isn't funny," says Marc Pollick, founder and president of the Giving Back Fund, which manages and consults with philanthropic foundations. "What it is doing is paying a lot of salaries to event planners and to vendors and directors, and a little bit goes to charity."

McLaughlin defends the foundation's practices, saying its staging of the golf events follows the PGA Tour model, and that the AT&T and Chevron stops rank among the leading charitable events on the tour. According to the most recent federal tax filings, the event corporation transferred $2.95 million to Woods' foundation.

The $503,138 compensation paid McLaughlin has also come under scrutiny by watchdogs. McLaughlin, a lawyer by trade, befriended Woods in 1992 when he gave the then-16-year-old golfer an exemption into his first PGA Tour event, the then-Nissan Los Angeles Open. At the time, McLaughlin was the tournament director in Los Angeles.

According to IRS records filed in September 2008, McLaughlin received an annual salary of $398,456 based on a 40-hour work week by the Tiger Woods Charitable Event Corporation, as well as $104,682 in salary for 25 hours a week of service to the Tiger Woods Foundation.

"That is pretty significant for the head of any large charity," says Ian Wilhelm of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which monitors salaries paid to nonprofit executives. Wilhelm added that it is not, however, so out of line as to create an issue with the IRS.

By comparison, records indicate that the head of Lance Armstrong's foundation, Doug Ulman ($257,774), is paid slightly more than half that figure. Similar 2008 filings reveal that Katherine Bihr, the educator overseeing the Tiger Woods Learning Center -- which is at the center of the foundation's work -- was paid $144,468.

[+] EnlargeTiger Woods Learning Center
Mike Fish/ESPN.comThe Tiger Woods Learning Center is the primary focus of the foundation's work.

McLaughlin reports to the foundations' board members, including Woods' longtime agent, Mark Steinberg, who serves on the board of all three of the golfer's foundations. At least four other individuals serve on both the primary foundation and learning center boards, including Woods' mother, Kultida. Former U.S. Olympic boss and baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth and tennis great Lindsay Davenport are among the 26 learning center board members.

Noticeably absent from any of the three boards is Woods' wife, Elin Nordegren. McLaughlin said he couldn't speculate on the absence of a formal role, adding, "I can tell you Elin has been very involved in the foundation."

McLaughlin estimates that Woods, 34, himself logs up to 15 days a year making appearances at foundation events, not counting time spent in board meetings and in related telephone conversations. In 2006 and 2007, Woods contributed a combined $10.85 million of his own money to his foundations, ranking him in the top 30 of celebrity philanthropists for both years, according to the Giving Back Fund. In 2008, the most recent year for which data was collected, he did not make the list.

"The biggest role Tiger has had is as a visionary for the center," says Bihr, who directs the learning center in Anaheim. "He was involved in knowing about the [educational] program and approving it, obviously. He has hired us to run it and put the programs in place."

Foundation depends on Woods

For now, with his once-gold-plated image tarnished, Woods' foundation might be one of the few things he has going for him. His charitable works at least paint the picture of a guy trying to do good. Ultimately, though, the foundation depends upon Woods being able to pick up his clubs and rebuild the Tiger brand with corporate sponsors.

To what degree he'll be successful -- and the future of his charitable endeavors -- remains unclear.

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Mike Fish/ESPN.com Roman Gonzales helps teach aspiring golfers.

Things already had slowed a bit even before Woods' sex scandal. Two years ago, plans were disclosed for a second learning center in Washington, D.C., but McLaughlin says there is still nothing formal to announce. McLaughlin was in Washington recently and indicated that two or three potential sites have been evaluated, but added that it remains unclear at this point whether a new facility would be built or an existing building purchased.

And, in the wake of his self-imposed exile from golf that will end at the Masters, Woods has not only personally lost millions in endorsement dollars and winnings, but his foundation has also started feeling financial repercussions. When he skipped the Chevron World Challenge, the popular stop he hosts in December benefiting the foundation, tourney officials refunded $25,000 in ticket sales and offered a 20 percent discount on next year's orders for those who attended the 2009 event.

McLaughlin says no "post-analysis" of the Southern California event has been conducted, though he acknowledged it's possible attendance for the event might have been down 10 to 15 percent. "That event was very successful, but there is an impact you get more from the standpoint of the gate, walk-up and ticket sales," he says. "Clearly there is some impact when he is not playing."

As far as sponsors, McLaughlin says none have walked away from obligations to Woods' foundation. That includes AT&T, which ended its business relationship with Tiger but will honor an agreement to serve as title sponsor of the summer PGA Tour event it sponsors through 2014.

"AT&T would look kind of bad if they reneged on that," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy. "Sponsors have already walked away from him, but if you walk away from the foundation it could cause problems from a PR standpoint, because you are helping kids."

Whether sponsors will stick around after their contracts expire is less clear.

For now, as he did last month in the controlled setting at PGA Tour headquarters, Tiger and his handlers would be smart to steer the conversation toward his foundation and its good work with young people.

"I can't speculate from an image-rebuilding [perspective]," says McLaughlin, when asked if the foundation could help Woods start winning back the public. "I can tell you that he's very committed to the work we have done. And he's committed to that. That has been unwavering."

Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Michaeljfish@gmail.com.