Young Life Lite: Hog Heaven

Like many charity golf outings, the annual Young Life outing in the Boulder Valley, Colorado area was a predictably pleasant, modestly profitable event. “It was a ‘chicken dinner’,” said Area Director Scott Downing, “Nice, tame and failing to represent what is best in Young Life.”

Downing and his area supporters wanted more. The ministry needs of the area were growing, certainly. But, more importantly, Downing and his golf committee wanted adults to experience the same fun and excitement that kids know as Young Life. “We wanted adults to experience a week of summer camp in one day.” One committee member had a vision for inviting his non-Christian friends to a “radical,” life-changing event.  “We wanted to someone to come to know Christ that day,” Downing said. With those goals in mind, five years ago, the Boulder Valley Young Life area re-invented the usual golf outing. Out with the chicken dinner. This event called for a hog — a custom painted, Harley Davidson V-Rod motorcycle, that is.

No more chicken dinner
Since 2002, a Harley has been the grand prize for “The Ultimate Putt,” a three-round putting competition that has become the crowning celebration of Boulder’s super-charged Golf Classic. But before golfers take their turn trying to sink 10-foot putts to advance to the final “putt off,” they are treated to a day of hilarity and hospitality.

In May, 220 golfers (including players from Texas, California, Florida and South Carolina) arrived early at the Omni Interlocken Golf Resort for what looks something more like a circus every year: banners, sponsor canopies, and cartoon character cut-outs adorn the grounds while Young Life staffers in sumo wrestling suits work the crowd.

At registration, golfers receive gifts that have included Adidas golf shoes and Oakley sunglasses — but no gift bag. “We want people to walk around with their arms full. Before our guests even have a chance to write a check, they’re greeted and thanked all over the place,” Downing said. And then the fun begins.

Golfers play an eighteen-hole scramble that includes the “Donut Hole” where committee members serve Krispy Kremes and the “Pot Shot” where golfers tee off from a porcelain perch. Young Life kids serve lunch to golfers on the course. And, all day long, an excessively decked-out golf cart called the “beach patrol” travels the course to encourage, hydrate and remind golfers of the evening’s headline event: “The Party on the Green featuring the Ultimate Putt.”

The party on the green
When golfers come off the eighteenth hole they are greeted by live music, hors d’oeuvres and tables arranged around the putting greens for the first round of the Ultimate Putt. Every golfer receives one first round putt. They can buy other opportunities at $50 each. Thereafter, players who sink their putts advance to rounds two and three. At any time players who miss can buy their way back into the rounds for increasing amounts; $250 a putt for the second round and $1000 a putt for the third round and final “putt-off.”

When round one finishes, golfers take an hour for dinner, an awards presentation and the Gospel message. Then, they return to the putting greens where in the next hours, seven to ten players vie for the Harley and other top prizes like a luxury vacation in one of 40 exotic locales, 2,200 round trip miles on a private jet, a home theater system and 100 private sessions with a personal trainer.

Prime-time drama
When the sun sets, Young Life blankets and hot chocolate are served to the crowd, while flood lights illuminate the golfer in the ring. In these later rounds, golfers lay down thousands of dollars to stay in the competition. Or, as often happens, onlookers ante up money in amounts of a hundred or $300 to keep a crowd favorite in the competition. This is where the excitement builds and the contributions pour in. At one point this year a golfer offered to buy each remaining competitor two putts if they each bought one. A total of $15,000 was raised in five minutes.

Pete Estler, sponsor and donor of the top prizes, said that while drama of the moment stimulates some giving, “what it is, really, are people who want to support the kids.” This is when some guests have asked, “What is happening here? What is this Jesus deal?”  Eventually someone answers their question.

As the final competitors in the Ultimate Putt leave the green, they are each asked to share something about themselves with the fans who have been cheering them on for two to three hours. Often these players thank the crowd and Young Life. And just as often, a finalist will tell the crowd a little about the person of Jesus Christ. Committee member and Course Director Larry Collins said of these moments, “This is where we get to see the heart of God inside the golfer; where they become transparent and where the Gospel is shared in a comfortable environment.” And where, on the putting green of a golf course on a Monday night in May, lives are changed.

Downing says the mission of the Boulder Valley area is radical ministry: “radical faith building radical community that results in radical ministry.” The Golf Classic is radical all right. Sponsors sign up a year in advance and then send clients to play in their place. The event sells out every year and hopeful golfers arrive early to take the place of no shows. Instead of turning in modest profits for the area, a new twist to an old formula called the Ultimate Putt raises as much as $73,000 in a few hours. One golfer leaves the course with a new Harley Davidson. And, most radically of all, people see the face of Jesus in the kids, the staff and the golfers on the green.

This golf outing is no longer a chicken dinner. It’s hog heaven.