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WM Phoenix Open makes congratulating PGA Tour winners part of its recipe of success

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Jordan Spieth asked for a donation to his personal foundation, which focuses on individuals with special needs, junior golf, military families and veterans, and pediatric cancer.

Gary Woodland chose Folds of Honor, a non-profit that awards college scholarships to the families of American military heroes.

And the list of charities that the Thunderbirds have made donations to on behalf of winners on the PGA Tour goes on and on.

“Those guys just do it right,” Woodland, who won the tournament in 2018, said of the Thunderbirds. “They gave me my first sponsor exemption in 2011 and I’ve gone back every year since. They throw a great party and like to have a good time, but they do a lot for their community and raise a boatload of money.”

Every week when a player wins on Tour, the Thunderbirds, the charitable organization that has hosted the WM Phoenix Open for 87 years, give back, making a donation to the charity of the winner’s choice.

A recruiting tactic? Perhaps in a subtle way, but only the most cynical among us would see that as the main objective. It’s just what the Thunderbirds do.

“We’re not big recruiters,” said Chance Cozby, executive director of the Thunderbirds. “I’ve never been comfortable walking up to a player at another tournament and trying to convince them to play in our event. If we have to convince them, they’re probably not going to play.”

The WM Phoenix Open will have its best field in history thanks in part to being selected as one of the 2022-23 designated events. It also doesn’t hurt that the purse grew to $20 million. In any event, Cozby didn’t have to do much recruiting this time because the stars were guaranteed to show up.

Jordan Spieth celebrates with caddie Michael Greller after making birdie at the 16th hole during the third round of the 2021 Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale. (Photo: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports)

But as Spieth pointed out, the Thunderbirds are “really good at the little things,” and exhibit A could be the congratulatory letter sent to all winners.

It’s a page right out of the Arnold Palmer playbook. For years, The King used to take time each week to write the winner of professional golf tournaments a note of congratulations. Players from Daniel Berger to Paula Creamer framed those letters. World Golf Hall of Famer Bernhard Langer has won more than 100 times around the world and said getting a letter from Palmer never got old.

“When I won a tournament, I was always wondering, do I get another letter from Arnie? And sure enough, it arrived,” Langer told Golfweek in 2021. “I was surprised when I got the first one because not everybody did that. I was very, very surprised, and very grateful and thankful.

“And they kept coming.”

The Thunderbirds instituted its letter-writing campaign in 2016, the same year of Palmer’s death. Dan Mahoney, the WMPO tournament chairman that year, conceived the Tour tournament winner donation program. Every winner has received a congratulatory letter from the current tournament chairman and a promise to donate $2,500 to the charity of the player’s choice. Win one of the four majors and the donation doubles to $5,000. Total donations through the program have grown to $556,000.

“We don’t talk about it and it’s not individually a massive amount of money but it’s every week,” said Cozby. “Hopefully, players know that we aren’t just thinking about them seven days a year.”

Thunderbirds Charities is a non-profit organization formed in 1986 to distribute monies raised through the WM Phoenix Open golf tournament. Last year, the Thunderbirds raised more than $10 million to be awarded to Arizona charities. That marked the fifth time in tournament history that the organization and the WM Phoenix Open have generated more than $10 million in charitable dollars in a single tournament and the 2022 sum was more than double what it raised 10 years ago.

It’s more of the same for the Thunderbirds, who have topped more than $110 million through the Tour’s annual visit to the Valley of the Sun since 2010 when WM was named title sponsor, and in its history has raised more than $176 million for Arizona charities.

“It’s really cool what they do,” said Spieth, a 13-time Tour winner, who last got a letter from the Thunderbirds after winning the 2022 RBC Heritage in April. “The first time I got the letter I was like, ‘Wow. That’s pretty special. These guys really get it.’ ”

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