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Barrow Discusses First Tee Program

By: Jeff Shelley


In a visit to the Pacific Northwest to see how the First Tee programs are going in Portland, Seattle and Olympia, the organization's executive director, Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., sat down and talked with the media. The leader of the nation's preeminent junior golf program is charismatic, intellectually impressive, and a fine communicator. He even talked about his father and namesake, arguably the best boxer ever - Joe Louis.

Launched with support from the PGA and LPGA tours, the USGA, PGA of America, and Augusta National Golf Club, the First Tee began in 1997. (Jack Stephens, the former chairman of Augusta National, got the organization rolling with a $5 million donation.) Starting with a handful of sites, the program now has 162 facilities and 138 chapters, with 380,000 participants internationally. The organization hopes to bump those numbers up to 250 facilities and 500,000 kids by 2005.

Barrow took over the reigns of the First Tee from Tod Leiweke, now the CEO of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks. Barrow attributes the initial growth of First Tee to the core sponsors. "No question, our association with the major golf organizations and Augusta National really gave us the impetus and financial support to succeed." He also cites the Tiger Woods phenomenon for attracting America's youth to golf.

The program depends on support from cities, counties and states for the donation of property for new facilities - which include driving ranges, teaching areas as well as three-, six- and nine-hole short courses. These agencies are drawn to the program because of the impacts it makes on the lives of the participants. According to Barrow, public entities also appreciate First Tee's diversity - 30 percent of the participants are girls, for example, feeling they're making "an investment in young people."

Though many bystanders feel that First Tee is just another "junior golf program," Barrow says it's far more than that. Indeed, the Life Skills Education element of the program is as important as providing inner-city kids access to golf as a much-needed recreational, outdoor outlet. The program teaches nine Core Values: Honesty, Integrity, Sportsmanship, Respect, Courtesy, Judgment, Confidence, Responsibility and Perseverance.

As an example of the lessons learned in the Core Values - a cornerstone of First Tee's foundation, Barrow cited the qualification process for determining which kids earned a spot in the inaugural First Tee Open at Pebble Beach Presented by WalMart. The Champions Tour event was held August 31-September 5 (2004) at the Pebble Beach Golf Links and Bayonet Golf Course on the Monterey Peninsula in California.

The event was won by Craig Stadler, whose amateur partner was Aaron Woodard, a 16-year-old from Denver. Aaron's father is Tom Woodard, a PGA Tour player in the 1980s and a club pro today. Stadler was so nervous the first day - he later said, "My goal was to get him (Woodard) to the third round" - that he shot a 72 during his opening round at Bayonet. The player known as "The Penguin" rallied in typically spectacular fashion, firing 13 birdies over the final two days and finishing four strokes ahead of the field at 22-under-par 194. To a man, the Champions Tour players - including Arnold Palmer - said the First Tee Open at Pebble Beach went to the top as their favorite tournament of the year.

The players were struck by the deportment of their youthful amateur partners, mostly juniors "raised" in the First Tee. Barrow related the selection process for who got to play in the tournament. With 105 original applicants, the "field" had to be narrowed down to 78. The "final exam" was held in Manhattan, Kan., where each entrant was required to write an essay outlining their reasons for wanting to play in such a prestigious event.

One youngster brought tears to the eyes of every adult in the room, relating that his sole motivation for playing was for his late grandmother, who raised him, a not-uncommon parenting arrangement for kids in the First Tee. Barrow reported that every child rooted for their fellow junior golfers to secure a spot in the field. None of the participants sulked after going unselected. Barrow also noted that the pros thought the First Tee kids were better behaved than the qualifiers not associated with the program.

The First Tee Open at Pebble Beach was particularly poignant for Barrow, who observed first-hand the racial discrimination African Americans once experienced on America's golf courses while growing up with his famous father. Barrow knew firsthand that Tom Woodard endured such bigotry, because the Denver native and future golf pro caddied for Joe Louis when Louis's family lived in Colorado's capital. Joe Louis Barrow accompanied his father on his outings at Denver's City Park Golf Course, and came to understand that the places his father and fellow African Americans could play golf were severely limited. In a sense, Barrow said, young Aaron's performance in the big time gave him a feeling of coming full circle, calling the Stadler-Woodard victory a "storybook ending."

Barrow discussed what it was like growing up with a famous father, a person widely recognized around the world as a great boxing champion, but one, despite such notoriety, restricted to where he could play golf. "My dad was really into golf. Some say he lost to Max Schmeling because he was more interested in golf than boxing," Barrow joked.

Barrow's parents divorced when he was 3 years old. He and his sister's visits with their father would often involve going out to lunch or dinner. Both children felt they really couldn't spend much time with Joe Louis, as the famous man would be interrupted repeatedly during these public outings. "There was very little private time," Barrow related. "The only private time I could get with my father were on the golf course."

Barrow started out caddying in Chicago for his father and, at the age of 12, began golfing with him. They'd often be joined by Billy Eckstein, the famous blues and jazz singer with the marvelously deep voice. Besides the four hours a round provided away from the public glare, Barrow believes Joe Louis liked golf because it was similar to boxing: both were highly individualistic, competitive sports. His father also liked the camaraderie and bantering so integral to the game.

Joe Louis certainly enjoyed a bet or two on the golf course. Once, after losing $20 to his father, who requested immediate payment at the end of the round, Barrow said he'd left his wallet in the locker room and couldn't pay right away. His father said nothing, and the mood turned serious. A half-hour later, Joe Louis asked for his winnings again. His son readily handed over the 20-spot. "Fast pay means fast friends," Barrow said in Seattle, a lesson he learned four decades ago.

After playing on his high school golf team and later graduating with a finance degree from college, Joe Louis Barrow received some positive reassurances from his father after accepting a job with a bank. His dad said, "Good decision - go where the money is." After leaving the banking industry, the First Tee's future executive director became the CEO of Izzo, the golf bag manufacturer that pioneered the double-strap method of packing clubs.

Barrow was animated while discussing his father, who passed away in 1981 at the age of 67. Joe Louis was an icon, both in sports and the world in general. Here was a black man who held the heavyweight title for an unprecedented 12 years, with 25 successful title defenses, more than any other fighter in history. The "Brown Bomber" was a role model for blacks and whites in a nation where color demarcated society. "He came from a world of have-nots, but never turned his back on people," Barrow said. "If people asked for $20, he gave them $50."

During his years as a champion, Joe Louis was one of the first black men to challenge American society and the built-in discrimination that pervaded the country. Martin Luther King Jr. once gave tribute to Joe Louis as his role model. And, during a private moment, when Barrow asked the usually blustering Muhammad Ali who was the greatest fighter ever, Ali whispered, "Your father."

With that background it's easy to see why Joe Louis Barrow is such a perfect fit for the First Tee. With goals "so much broader than golf," Barrow has a grip on the reins of a program that will benefit the industry and, more importantly, spawn society's future leaders.

The kids who went through the program during its seminal years are now young adults attending college and entering their prime. In a few years, Barrow hopes these young people will become doctors, lawyers, professors and professionals. Right now, many graduates have returned to serve as "mentors" to kids new to the program, wanting to share their experiences and convey the lessons they've learned.

The First Tee has a simple rule: No child will be excluded from participating, regardless of color, sex, parentage or family income. For the adults who volunteer their time and expertise in running the 162 - and growing - facilities, it's not the improved golf swings or lower scores that resonate. It's "the smiles on the faces of the kids," said Barrow, a leader who knows what's important. His father would be proud.