A state title and a player off to Pebble Beach are the latest signs of golf's impact on Atlanta's East Lake neighborhood
Urban blight is all too common in inner cities, ruefully, but there is a remedy, and one that has been often documented and continuously demonstrated in Atlanta’s East Lake neighborhood.
In May, the boys’ golf team at Drew Charter School adjacent to Bobby Jones’ home course, East Lake Golf Club, won the boys’ Class A (public schools division) State Championship by 16 shots, the first all-African-American team to win a state golf title in Georgia.
And on Wednesday, Drew Charter’s team captain, Anthony Ford, was one of 78 First Tee members selected from around the country to play in the PGA Tour Champions’ PURE Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach in September.
“I was really excited for him,” his coach and mentor Nyre Williams said. “This is the granddaddy of all opportunities. He has tried to get selected for the last three years.”
Even with a historic golf club in its midst, it once would have been unimaginable that a high school from a neighborhood considered the most dangerous in Atlanta could win a state golf championship. In the early 1990s, at the height of the neighborhood blight, Georgia Tech’s golf team practiced there, at its own risk.
“The Tech team had a running bet during practice rounds at East Lake, if anyone heard a gunshot or a siren it was an automatic press,” Golf Channel’s Rex Hoggard wrote in 2009. “During one practice round a player was held up at gun point through the fence adjacent the 14th hole.”
Atlanta entrepreneur Tom Cousins bought East Lake Golf Club in 1994, and a year later he and his wife, Ann, established the East Lake Foundation with a goal of revitalizing the neighborhood. It included the Drew Charter School that opened in 2000 and now has classes from kindergarten through high school.
In 2004, the East Lake Junior Golf Academy joined The First Tee and became its East Lake Chapter, which earlier this week merged with The First Tee of Atlanta. Williams, The First Tee of East Lake’s director, is now the Program Director of Outreach for The First Tee of Metro Atlanta and is one of Drew Charter’s three golf coaches.
Golf is part of the physical education curriculum at Drew Charter, and with The First Tee chapter headquartered next door at the Charlie Yates Golf Course, the two provided the foundation for a state championship team comprised of players who also are excelling in school while learning the nine core values that The First Tee advocates.
“They thought they were learning golf,” Williams said, “but they’re learning about themselves. Far more than golf is being taught. They’re learning life lessons, core values, healthy habits.”
The Drew Carter team members—Ford, Solomon Dobbs, Treveon McCurty, Miles Richardson, Connor Mason and Christopher McCrary—all are part of The First Tee as well and have been competing together going back to their middle school years.
“It has become kind of our feeder system into the high school,” Williams said. “This is the third year straight we made it to state, the boys and girls. We have been knocking on the door for three years. It really gave us an advantage that we’ve been together so long. We really felt good about our chances. We really had a team that pulled together. We were runner-up in 2017, finished fourth in 2018 and won this year.”
The star and captain is Ford, 16, a senior-to-be. On orders from Williams, he was told to be up by 7 a.m. Wednesday and watching Golf Channel, when The First Tee participants for the PURE Insurance Championship would be announced.
“I watched the whole thing and saw my name,” Ford said. “I was happy, but my mom and dad started screaming. I think they were more excited than I was.”
The state championship and his PURE Insurance Championship invitation represent for Ford the pinnacle of a game with which he had little interest initially. “I thought golf was boring,” he said. “I didn’t watch it that much.”
Then one day, his father (“a sports fanatic,” Ford said) was watching Tiger Woods play. “I went into the garage, picked up a club and broke the back window of our Jeep Cherokee,” he said. His father redirected him toward the driving range.
“I was 9 or 10 then,” he said. “I joined The First Tee about the sixth grade. We had classes every Saturday from eight to nine. They involved life skills and golf skills. They teach you a lot of stuff about golf, what you need. They also taught us to embody the nine core values each and every day. We have people come in and teach us finance skills, real estate, stuff like that, that’s not really taught in school. They keep it real, tell you what you need to do.”
Ford is hoping to get a full scholarship at a university where he can play as a freshman. “That’s my first goal,” he said. “My second goal is to get my schoolwork done and to give the tour a shot. I believe I can make it.”
The players on the Drew Carter team, incidentally, all caddie at East Lake. One of the perks of playing golf for Drew Charter is that they get to play the course roughly once a month.
Ford lives in an apartment at the Villages of East Lake, directly across the street from the course. Last September, he watched on television the final round of the Tour Championship being played there.
“Right before Tiger won, I heard a roar that almost took my apartment down,” he said, noting the telecast was delayed by a few seconds.
Ford and his teammates, The First Tee and Drew Charter School, Tom and Ann Cousins and the East Lake Foundation, they have earned a similar response, albeit a substantially more muted one, for a job at least as equally well done.