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Golfers Who Give Back

Meet the First Tee Game Changers who helped golf grow in 2023

January 23, 2024

They number in the thousands around the country—an army of volunteers at golf courses who plant seeds of love for golf in children and then nuture that interest in the game and its life lessons. This year, we recognize and honor the First Tee Game Changers—the recipients of the highest awards given out by First Tee for their outstanding contributions.

Empty nester finds joy, purpose in mentoring

When staff at the First Tee Lake Erie chapter in Toledo, Ohio, pulled Bob Sobecki into the office this past summer, he was stunned to learn he was receiving \he First Tee’s George H.W. Bush Volunteer of the Year Award (Golf Digest is a trustee of First Tee and gave $100,000 to the chapters represented by the winners in this story).

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Bob Sobecki working with a young golfer at The First Tee program in Ohio.

In a video from the day, the 73-year-old retiree talked about how much teaching kids to play has meant to him and then quipped, “I skipped a volunteer opportunity for this!” Everybody laughed because that was classic Bob. A decade ago, Sobecki was a golfer at Crosswinds Golf Club in Perrysburg, Ohio, when head pro Dave Sanford asked if he could help with the area’s First Tee program. Sobecki, a father of two adult children, accepted and has been a valuable contributor since.

“I don’t play golf as well as I once did, but I do notice I’m a better teacher than I am a player. I’ll hang my hat on that,” Sobecki says. “I get thank yous from the parents and kids, and I tell them, ‘You don’t know how much joy this brings me.’”

Bringing inner-city kids to the golf course

Often the hardest part of any golf outreach program is getting kids to facilities where they can swing a club or putt a ball. First Tee Greater Trenton in New Jersey has reached kids in underprivileged areas through after-school programs, the YMCA and churches, and the results are impressive. More than 35 percent of Greater Trenton’s participants are on scholarship, and 47 percent are girls. For those successes, the chapter received the First Tee’s 2023 Barbara Douglas and Dr. William Powell Diversity Award. Credit the accomplishments to a staff and board that is 70 percent ethnically diverse.

“It has to be intentional, and that’s where our board comes in,” says Ed Benson, the program’s executive director. “It’s challenging to get kids from the inner city. They have to trust us. Many of those homes are supported by grandparents or guardians. There are a lot of dynamics there.”

First Tee Trenton has had numerous kids excel in education and golf. Among them is Megan Meng, a class of 2024 student who played in the Junior Solheim Cup and plans to attend Northwestern.

Teaching the fundamentals of golf and life

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Unlike many of her Black peers growing up in Savannah, Ga., Ariel Brown had plenty of exposure to golf. Her dad, Dr. Morris Brown, played college golf at Savannah State and started an after-school golf program before First Tee existed. But Ariel excelled in basketball and volleyball—sports that had far more girls who looked like her compared to golf.

“I felt like I didn’t belong,” Brown says. Still, her dad predicted she would come back to golf, and after college, Brown did with a purpose.

The past nine years she has been a classroom teacher and golf instructor at Savannah Legacy Academy, a Christian school founded by her parents. Brown, 32, serves as the First Tee Savannah chapter’s lead instructor and was named 2023 National Teacher of the Year. “In other sports it’s win, win, win,” she says. “In golf we teach kids about integrity and accountability.”

The Brown family is looking for a site to build a K-12 school that would include a golf practice facility. To no one’s surprise, the Browns would make golf a mandatory part of the curriculum.

A couple's promise is kept

The first time Bill and Kim Allen hosted young golfers from First Tee Delaware at their club in Wilmington, they saw there was work to be done. The invitation to Fieldstone Golf Club was coveted by the students, but when they showed up with their parents, many were dressed like they were headed for a country picnic. “From that day,” Bill Allen says, “we committed to do three things: teach them how to dress and use proper etiquette for a meal; know the values to use on the golf course; and see people play golf who looked like them.”

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Kim (left) and Bill Allen (right).

As Black leaders in business and education, the Allens had the resources to make this happen. For 20 years, they have made good on their word, including hosting the annual Allen Challenge Cup in which pro athletes, celebrities and members play with First Tee students. The events have raised more than $200,000 to support programming for the chapter, and for that work the Allens received the First Tee Tim Finchem Award that recognizes service, leadership and commitment to First Tee’s mission.

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