Having worked as a standard bearer the first three days of last year’s Tour Championship, A.J. Ford sat out Sunday and caught the final round on TV.
Living at the Villages of East Lake, about a 7-iron from the course, he viewed Tiger Woods’ first tournament victory in five years in a weird kind of surround sound.
“TV is kind of delayed, so I heard the roars (from the course) before I saw it on TV,” he recalled. “It felt like an earthquake. It was so loud. It was insane. I thought, man, this is historic.”
A little more than eight months later, Ford helped make a bit of golf history himself, much quieter than Tiger’s kind. He captained the Drew Charter School boys golf team to a Class A public-school state championship. Along with a trophy, it won the distinction of being the first all-African American team to win a state golf championship in Georgia.
Drew Charter is intimately connected to the site of next week’s Tour Championship, East Lake Golf Club. It stands next door to the club as a physical testament to the rebirth of the neighborhood spawned by East Lake and the season-ending PGA Tour event. And its golf team, whose players all spring from the First Tee program that also draws so much support from the East Lake Foundation, has made just as many transformative strides.
For one thing, it has redefined golf in this particular neighborhood. Why, could it be that it is even one of the cool sports at this school?
“Drew doesn’t have football. Golf is our football. Seriously,” golf coach Joe Weems said.
“Every year,” he added, “it’s harder and harder (to make the team). Our younger golfers are preparing, they work hard, they know one of the main things you have to have in this program is a commitment to work hard.
“We had 35 golfers try out for this team. Every coach I tell that to can’t believe it. Next year I’m expecting at least 50. We’re trying to put a JV program in place next year – we don’t want to throw any golfers away.”
As Drew Charter was winning its title at Southern Landings in Warner Robins, those following the team said they saw maybe one other player in the entire field who was black.
That was not a driving factor for the team, says the coach. “We just talk about being good golfers, keeping the playing field level so everyone has a chance,” Weems said. But it is a fact.
“I didn’t know a thing like that existed (the distinction of being the first African-American team to win a state golf title),” said Solomon Dobbs, a senior on the team who is going on to Morehouse, where he’s looking to play golf. “We were just focused on playing golf. It (the historical distinction) is a wonderful thing to have under your belt.”
“For us – for the team and the parents – it’s pride that if you put your mind to it you can do anything,” said David Richardson, whose son, Miles, is a sophomore on the golf team. “Once you’re out there playing you forget about (there being no other African-American competitors). The parents are all doing the same thing – we’re all worried about our son hitting it off the tee, getting it on the green and putting it in the hole. You end up building friendships with other parents because you’re all going through the same thing. We don’t think about it. You know there is a difference, but once they tee it up we’re all the same.”
Ford, a senior this year, finished 5 over par over in the state tournament (shooting 78-71), third overall individually. He has been selected as one of the First Tee alums from around the country to play alongside the over-50 PGA Tour Champions players in the PURE Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach, Calif., in late September.
Not bad for a young man who acknowledges, “I used to think golf was boring.”
Then, one day, Ford took a few of his dad’s clubs outside and starting swinging quite randomly. After busting out the back window of dad’s Jeep Grand Cherokee with a swing (good rotation, kid), all parties agreed to take this game somewhere safer, and more appropriate.
Since sixth grade, Ford has been part of The First Tee, the golf-centric youth development program that is one of the Tour Championship’s big benefactors. All of Drew’s players are a reflection of the First Tee, all introduced to golf and given a chance to develop their games and themselves, a chance that otherwise might have gone unfulfilled.
A state championship was a title shared by many. “It meant a lot of validation as far as the kids working, everybody working together. The parents, the administration, all the people who support the kids,” Weems said.
“I’ve seen some of these kids when they started, like Solomon (Dobbs),” said Nyre Williams, the executive director of First Tee of Metro Atlanta. “He started in second grade, a kid who knew nothing about golf and had an opportunity to win a state championship.”
Dobbs twice hit the ceremonial tee shot to begin the Tour Championship. The first time, he went a little sideways. “It was kind of nerve-wrecking. I didn’t realize how many people would be watching. Outside the people in the stands, I didn’t think about the cameras and the people watching on TV,” he said.
The second time, “I went in with a calm mind.” And he striped it.
While Ford took in Wood’s victory last year from couch level, many of his teammates were on the course, posted up around the 18th green as the whole place came unraveled.
That day was a good day to think about doing something special.
“I think it was a motivator (for some players) for them to see that, to be a part of that,” Ford said.
“It was an inspiration for anyone who was there,” said David Richardson, who watched the Tour Championship close with his son. “The kids loved it. The fans loved it. The parents thought there was a good lesson in that one: Hey, you could be knocked down, but got to keep on getting up and keep on putting the work in, too.”
It was a lesson heeded.
“Before the season started I wrote down all my goals. No. 1 was the state championship,” Dobbs said. “Every night when I got home late from practice, I’d look at it. It was like a continuous cycle. There were times when you don’t feel like practicing, times you’d rather sleep, all these hours of hard work and dedication. I believed it was possible, otherwise it wouldn’t have been one of my goals. It just feels good to get it accomplished.”
Woods has been called something of a trailblazing figure in golf. There’s a team from a school just across the street from East Lake that has won the right to think of itself just a little bit in those same terms, too. At least around the Drew campus.
“We are like pioneers,” said Conner Mason, who was a freshman on the championship team. “I guess for us to do that, we are forerunners for another generation.”
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com