Spotlight Shines on East Lake Foursome

By Michelle Hiskey
From The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Take a kid from an Atlanta housing project and teach him to play golf well enough to get a scholarship. Can he cut it in college?

That’s the question — and pressure — facing Brandon Bradley, Shelton Davis, Willie Brown and Rodriquez Lowery. These four teenaged freshmen play for Grambling State after graduating from the First Tee of East Lake program.

For Brown, who like Lowery is trying to make a 2.0 grade point average so he can play in Division I tournaments, the pressure is like this:

“Man, I can’t be driving out of college, coming back to the [East Lake program],” he said. “I got to do this.”

For Bradley, the first of his family to go to college, the task is simple in practice, large in impact.

“I really like to play golf, so all I got to do is show up and play, and school will be free,” he said. “A lot of young [East Lake] kids are looking at us, and they make it easy for me to keep going.”

Their experience has been mixed. Bradley and Davis are playing at Grambling. Brown and Lowery have yet to qualify academically.

The four are the first of the generation of children plucked from the violence of East Lake Meadows, the housing project where some of them lived. It was torn down and replaced with a mixed-income village as part of the transformation of the East Lake Golf Club, which hosts the PGA Tour Championship this week.

The First Tee of East Lake began as part of the community renewal. The year-round program has taught golf to more than 1,000 neighborhood kids through camps, after-school clinics and P.E. programs at Drew Charter School.

This “golf with a purpose” movement got a boost from the rise of Tiger Woods, the first dominating golf champion of color, who became a role model for children around the world and at East Lake.

These four had led Southside High School to the city golf title before arriving this fall at Grambling, a rural college of 4,500 eight hours away from home.

They picked Grambling partly because of something one of their mentors, Byron Williams, told them.

“If you split up, one of you will perish,” he said. “If you stick together, if one of you is down, another one can pull you up.”

They’ve gotten other help from mentors back home.

The four get around in a green Saturn bequeathed by their former instructor, Sam Puryear, who is now a golf coach at Stanford. The car is essential for driving 30 minutes from their campus to Grambling’s practice course. The travel time is a big change from the few steps from their East Lake homes to the Charlie Yates Golf Club.

The four also lean on Chris Bennett, a 1992 Morehouse graduate who is a round-the-clock resource for the golfers and their families.

“We have to put our money where our mouth is if we want golf to help people live a good life, to help them be educated and empower them to be good citizens in our society,” said Bennett, who heads up East Lake’s outreach effort called Creating Responsible, Educated and Working (CREW) Teens.

Because these youngsters already had people take a chance on them in teaching them golf, golf coaches are more likely to take the risk of offering them a scholarship, Grambling coach Tegritra Thomas said.

“I didn’t recruit them simply because of them, but the people who pour into them,” Thomas said. “The East Lake program is solid, and a solid golf program is going to have solid kids. I’d love to have better golfers, but I’d rather have a solid person than someone who is terrible to be around.”

Bradley and Davis are playing on the Tigers’ traveling team and teed off in their first tournament a few miles south of East Lake last month — the Coca-Cola Black College Hall of Fame Classic at Browns Mill Golf Course.

“Golf’s fun, but it’s a lot of work,” said Davis, who shot 77-76 despite putting problems and finished 36th. He’s gotten used to getting up at 5 a.m. to run with the team.

“They’ve done tremendously with the pressure they are under,” Thomas said. “They left to set a precedent, and to be the first, everyone looks to them for the standard. And going from high school to college golf is a humongous adjustment. The expectations are so much higher.”

Grambling’s team competes across the Southeast and Texas. That’s a change, too. The East Lake players are used to the best coming to them — and watching instead of playing.

The Tour Championship, staged this week at East Lake Golf Club, gave them a close-up look at a pro golfer’s life and luxuries. In high school, the four walked inside the ropes as scoreboard carriers or honorary observers.

In 2004, Bradley walked with winner Retief Goosen.

Last month, Bradley shot 81-87 to finish 56th at his college debut at Browns Mill.

Pro and college golf experiences led Bradley to the same conclusion: “I’ve got a lot of work to do.” And as he does so, the eyes of many from Atlanta are watching. With the East Lake brand comes both benefit and burden.