An autistic golfer and a Native American named Jamozzy help put a spotlight on The First Tee at Pebble Beach

September 25, 2019

Courtesy of George Koutsopetras

Golf’s redeeming value, to those keeping score, depends ostensibly on how those numbers add up on a given day, though that can be a misrepresentation. What the game offers can’t be quantified numerically. Humanity is the better measure.

Meet Evan Koutsopetras, 15, from Brooklyn. He was diagnosed with autism at age 3, did not start talking until six months later, was was told by a private high school that as a special-needs student his IQ was not high enough to compete academically.

Today, Koutsopetras is a junior and plays No. 1 on the golf team at Fort Hamilton High, the second largest high school in New York City, with nearly 5,000 students. He is an honor student, an Eagle Scout, and on Friday will be one of 78 First Tee participants from across the country playing alongside members of the PGA Tour Champions in the PURE Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach.

“He would not have been exposed to typical kids,” his father, George, said, addressing the role golf and The First Tee played in his development. “Golf above any other sport affords the opportunity to learn and exhibit really good mannerisms and behaviors. The First Tee was really critical, because they have the nine core values. They were teaching life skills, how to greet people, how to interact.”

Meet, too, Jamozzy Skenandore, 17, a Native American and member of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. The Skenandores—Shoney and Rhonda and their kids Jamozzy and Skye—live on the reservation in Oneida, and Shoney and Rhonda work at the Oneida Casino. “We’re not rich people,” Shoney said matter-of-factly. Jamozzy recently was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He, too, will be playing in the PURE Insurance Championship, a fact the family learned when Brett Favre, the Green Bay Packers’ Hall of Fame quarterback, delivered the news on Golf Channel.

“When I saw it, I cried,” Shoney said. “What Jamozzy’s been through, I felt like he deserved it, because his year has been so tough. I was really happy for him. I watched it three times.”

Many of The First Tee participants at Pebble Beach this week have their own stories that support the notion that golf in the right environment is more than a sport. For Koutsopetras and Skenandore, it has been a lifeline of sorts, in accordance with The First Tee’s mission statement: “To impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf.”

Koutsopetras began playing golf at age 6, when his parents enrolled him in The First Tee of Metro New York. “I started to pick up behaviors and mannerisms from watching others," he said. "Soon enough I related to my First Tee friends more than I did through special-needs schools.”

When he was ready for high school, his parents wanted him to attend a private school. “But they told him he his IQ wasn’t high enough to survive academically." George said. "Ultimately, we didn’t have much of a choice.”

He enrolled at Fort Hamilton High, where the golf coach, Anthony Attanasio, showed no favoritism. “That was beneficial,” George said. “Both his First Tee coach [Anthony Rodriguez] and high school coach treated him equally. Basically, they looked at his skill set as opposed to something else. The coach had told him he’d be an alternate on the varsity. He ended up being No. 3 on the team.

“The ability to come in and contribute was a blessing. He had two coaches who looked at his ability and performance. How you perform is how you get placed.”

Evan, who plays to a handicap index of 4.7, was a standard bearer at the 2017 Presidents Cup at Liberty National and at the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black. “I have a passion for golf,” Evan said, noting that beyond enjoyment of the game, “it helps me focus better.”


Courtesy of The First Tee

What initially stands out about Jamozzy Skenandore is his first name. “I had the name [selected] actually for a few years, probably before I met my wife,” Shoney said. “I used to go to concerts a lot. I went to a Pearl Jam concert at Alpine Valley [Music Theater, in East York, Wis.] and to the Ozzfest [founded by Ozzie Osbourne].” The idea to combine Jam and Ozzy came from Pink Floyd, named for two blues musicians, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.

The next thing to stand out is Jamozzy’s handicap index, 0.1. He tied for 19th in the Wisconsin State Amateur and finished third in the Wisconsin PGA Junior Championship.

“What’s really neat about Jamozzy is that he’s the classic First Tee participant,” said Julie Pyne, his long-time instructor, the former director of The First Tee of Northeast Wisconsin, and a former LPGA player. “The family doesn’t come from money. They don’t have a country club membership. The parents sacrificed a lot to get him into tournaments and things. Turns out now the whole family comes out to play. It brought them all close together. He’s a good kid with really great parents.

“I couldn’t be more pleased where he’s come as an individual. He’s a great player, but also a great young man.”

Courtesy is one of the nine core values of The First Tee, and Jamozzy learned it early. When he was 10, Pyne recalled, he was walking from the range to the clubhouse as a foursome was preparing to tee off at the first hole.

“He stopped,” she said, “and he waited for all four of the guys to hit and then he went in. They came in and told me and asked, ‘Who’s that kid? He was so courteous and we were so impressed. Would you buy him a Coke or something for us?’ They were so pleased. That’s the kind of thing The First Tee teaches.”

What began, for his parents, as a way to keep their son occupied over the summer, evolved into a passion for Jamozzy and a blessing for his parents, who are grateful for all that The First Tee has done for him.

“He met a lot of good people through The First Tee,” Shoney said. “It’s not only about the golf. It’s about character, integrity and so much more and that’s what we liked. These were good people, and I believing in surround yourself with good people. Julie Pyne, as far as a role model and mentor, has been a big part of it. She’s always been there for him.”