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A rising star quit golf because he felt he didn't belong. Here's the program that brought him back
Kobe Jones is back in the sport thanks to the Gateway Program.
He walked away from his love. It was his choice, Kobe Jones says. That didn’t make it less painful. And make no mistake, it was his love.
“Everyone talks about hitting the ball the first time,” says Jones of Frisco, Texas. “That it hooked them, that had them coming back. I had that feeling every time. Every hit, every putt. Practicing even … every time was that feeling. I loved it all.”
Jones was a rising teenage star in Dallas, a product of the area’s First Tee program. But as Jones grew older and developed the cognizance that comes with adolescence, his love for golf began to feel forbidden. Or worse, unrequited. Be it his race or background, Jones sensed where he wanted to be was no longer where he was wanted. Coupled with growing financial burdens facing his family, Jones, with a broken heart, quit golf.
Here’s the thing about true love, though: It is a fire that never burns out.
On Tuesday night at the AT&T Byron Nelson, Jones was honored as one of the first participants of the ClubLife Gateway Program. A joint venture by ClubCorp and the First Tee, the program provides golf memberships—which include tee times, use of practice areas and the opportunity to compete in events—to promising junior players who don’t have the means or access to these resources. The participants earned these memberships for their personal growth and development through the First Tee program, as well as their playing ability, with the program aimed at facilitating a college scholarship. All the participants are in high school, save for one outlier: Jones.
Jones, now 19, is a student at Collin County (Texas) College. He did, in fact, walk away from the sport five years ago. So what, exactly, is he doing here?
“Because he is the best of what this program can be,” says Katie Harris of the Dallas First Tee.
Jones first held a golf club at 2, a hand-me-down from his father. The toddler would mess around with it on putting greens and living room floors. He started playing rounds with his dad; by middle school he entered his first tournament, which he won. That became a recurring theme for Jones, as he routinely broke 80. He loved the game’s competitive nature, not only with the course and opponents but himself.
“I really enjoyed the challenge,” Jones says. “I liked how hard it was. It made it interesting, something I was trying to solve.”
While other kids would get angry at their stumbles, Jones seemed to bask in the chance to get better. He became a range rat at the Dallas First Tee, where he caught Harris’ eye.
“He was an extremely talented prospect, but in almost 10 years into working with First Tee, few have the level of passion for the game that Kobe does,” Harris says. “It is infectious. He makes everyone around him happy.”
Kobe with his father attending Colonial.
Jones became a presence at the First Tee, a kid other kids gravitated towards. “You can’t overstate the power of having a child that can be a role model for his peers,” Harris says. The relationship was beneficial to Jones as well, as most of his equipment, lessons and rounds came through the First Tee program.
However, before his freshman year of high school, Harris noticed Jones had disappeared. He stopped showing up for classes and was no longer signing up for events. She worried it might be a financial matter.
Jones doesn’t dispute that, mentioning a family member’s medical bills taking their toll. But he adds his reasoning went deeper than economics.
“As I was entering high school, I looked around and realized there weren’t many people like me,” Jones says. “I kept getting this sense that I didn’t belong, or people didn’t want me there.”
Jones says it wasn’t anything at the First Tee, just the game in general. He rarely saw other Black players on the course, and everyone appeared to come from money. The appearance of being an outsider made Jones feel like an outsider, and it hurt. He hated walking away, especially as his game seemed on the brink of something special. But the alternative, continuing on with this nagging feeling of not belonging, was too heavy to put aside.
Instead, Jones gravitated to basketball, which his father coaches. He figured it was a cheaper pastime, and more importantly, where he felt he fit in. Jones turned out to be just as good on the hardwood as he was on the fairways; he earned First-Team All-District selection in his senior season at Frisco High and received a number of Division I scholarships.
But as high school was coming to a close, he realized basketball was not his muse. He passed on a myriad of opportunities to play at the next level. “I didn’t want to focus on it anymore,” Jones says. His athletic career ostensibly ended, he enrolled at Cullin, taking online courses during the COVID-19 shutdown.
During the malaise of pandemic, Jones found himself watching a golf tournament for the first time in what felt like forever. His mom, watching with him, asked Kobe if he missed it. “I said, ‘Heck yeah. Every day I miss it,’” Jones says.
The moment, he says, was cathartic. Five years older than the boy who left the game, Jones decided he didn’t care what others thought. He knew where he belonged.
Jones ended his golf sabbatical last July. He did not ease himself back; Kobe was at the range or playing every day at nearby Frisco Lakes, unearthing the passion that had been buried for so long. Despite the rust, Jones discovered he was still pretty good. That, he says, was secondary.
“It was just cool to be back,” Jones says. “You forget how fun it is. If anything, I was more appreciative than I was before.”
Unfortunately, the financial constraints remained. Jones says he was spending close to $600 a month, money that, frankly, he didn’t have. “I know my parents would sacrifice anything to allow me to keep playing,” Jones says. “But I didn’t want that burden on them.” Luckily, word got to Harris that her former pupil was closing down Frisco Lakes on a nightly basis. It proved to be serendipity, as it coincided with Harris looking for candidates for the Gateway Program.
“I reached out to ClubCorp,” Harris says. “I told them, ‘I know you wanted kids in high school, but this guy is special.’”
Kobe, Kamaiu Johnson, and other Gateway Program students playing at StoneBridge C.C.
The program directors agreed, which is how Jones was gifted a membership to Stonebriar C.C. In the months since Jones was granted access, he’s been there every day starting at 2:00 p.m. (the earliest he’s allowed on the course) and is there until the club closes shop. Hurdles remain—Jones has never been fitted, and transportation remains an issue. Nevertheless, Jones says he’s already shooting 74s and 75s on a regular basis, and hopes to get good enough to earn a golf scholarship by next year.
Better yet, tournament officials at the Nelson invited the Gateway Program players to a dinner Tuesday night and to Wednesday’s practice round at TPC Craig Ranch. Jones met a handful of players, including Luke Donald, who was one of his favorites growing up. He also got to play a nine-hole round with Kamaiu Johnson, the APGA player who’s made a handful of starts on the PGA Tour this season.
“He told me just to keep being myself,” Jones says of his time with Johnson (Jones also wants to point out he shot 39). “To keep smiling, and never let anyone say you can’t be out here.”
Jones is making sure he’s not the only one hearing that message. He may be back playing, but Jones says he has a higher calling. Harris notes that Jones approached her about volunteering this summer at the First Tee. To give back, yes, of course, but Kobe wants to be the old Kobe, the person who makes other kids want to be there. And hopefully, keep them coming back.
“I want to bring that life to the party. To be the difference that could change someone’s life,” Jones says. “It’s important for kids to be able to see someone that looks like them that is doing big things. And I think I can be that person.”