From the Atlanta Business Chronicle
By Anya Martin
Two years ago, 9-year-old Benjamin Thomas got to caddie for Davis Love III in the “Caddie for a Day” program held annually during the Southern Company Pro-Am at The Tour Championship presented by Coca-Cola.
Most of the time, the children only follow the pros for one hole, but Love invited Thomas to accompany him for six holes.
“He must have liked me,” said Thomas, a wide grin beaming from the now-11-year-old sixth grader at East Lake’s Drew Charter School.
This up-close time with one of golf’s hottest pros has been just one of the many opportunities that Thomas has experienced thanks to his participation in The First Tee of East Lake, which provides instruction both in golf and in life skills surrounding nine core values, including honesty, integrity and sportsmanship.
Thomas has competed in tournaments across Georgia and qualified for Drew Charter School’s inaugural middle-school-level golf team this past year despite being just a fifth-grader.
He also has watched pros compete at the AT&T Classic and the Master’s Tournament in Augusta, and lunched with Lee Elder, the first African-American to play in the (1975) Masters.
The First Tee of East Lake grew out of the East Lake Junior Golf Academy, founded in 1997, as part of the revitalization of the then-impoverished and crime-ridden neighborhood, and became an official chapter of the nonprofit World Golf Foundation’s First Tee in 2005.
Children ages 7 to 18 from the East Lake community are eligible to join the year-round program at the Charlie Yates Golf Course, a public 18-hole course adjacent to Drew Charter School and around the corner from the East Lake Golf Club.
Close to 800 children participated during the past school year, with plans to enroll 1,000 this year, said Nyre Williams, director of The First Tee of East Lake and coach to the Drew Charter School golf team.
“Studies have shown that the earlier you start a child playing the game of golf, the better chance they will have of retaining it later in life,” he added.
This year has been a big year for The First Tee of East Lake, Williams said.
Eight of the program’s children, including Thomas, were chosen to compete in The First Tee’s Southeast regional tournament in August.
Two students qualified for The First Tee’s National Academy, held in July in Manhattan, Kan., and Williams himself was one of two dozen coaches selected to teach there.
“Just seeing the kids and how they take to the game, knowing if they stick with it what they have to look forward to, is so rewarding,” said Jeff Taylor, a sales representative for Dalton-Ga.-based carpet company J&J/Invision, who is one of 50 volunteers who works with The First Tee of East Lake as coaches and companion players to the children.
The First Tee also has an advisory board, The Friends of First Tee, composed of corporate and community leaders who play an essential role in fundraising and sponsorships.
Williams said he is proudest, however, of the program’s success in its mission to teach values.
He added he has seen many children’s grades improve after they join The First Tee.
“I’ve seen self-esteem in kids [change] almost instantly within the first couple of times they come to First Tee,” said Williams, who knows firsthand that golf can open doors, having discovered a natural talent for the sport when his uncle encouraged him to practice swings on his family farm.
The self-taught golfer went on to teach at the East Lake Junior Golf Academy from 2001 to 2004, spent two years directing The First Tee of Nashville (Tenn.), then returned to direct The First Tee of East Lake in 2006.
Today, Benjamin Thomas talks as excitedly about the life skills he has learned from The First Tee as he does about perfecting his swing, demonstrating three steps for greeting a new person: firm handshake, good eye contact and stating one’s name clearly.
Other values Thomas has learned include: “Be patient, be positive and ask for help,” he said.
“I now ‘ask for help’ most of the time at school,” he added. “Before [The First Tee], I never did because I used to think if I asked for help, kids would laugh at me.”
Inspired to start playing golf at age 6 by Tiger Woods, Thomas said he hoped the skills he learned at First Tee would help him one day land a golf scholarship to attend college.
“I saw how people were getting a lot of opportunities out of [golf],” he added.