Tom Cousins still shaping East Lake’s vision

The home Tom Cousins occupies during Tour Championship week sits directly at the intersection of glories past and present.

On its walls are photos of a long-ago former resident, Alexa Stirling, who won three U.S. Women’s Amateurs between 1916 and 1920 and was known as the “First Lady of East Lake.” At 12, she beat a 7-year-old Bobby Jones in her first tournament. Jones, however, was awarded the trophy because it was decided it just wasn’t proper for a girl to show up the boys.

From the sun room, he can look out on East Lake’s 10th fairway as the PGA Tour’s richest event makes the turn. The parade of players and fans — 25,000 of them if organizers hit their goal — pass by and never once wave in the direction of the man who was largely behind resurrecting the place.

It was 20 years ago that Cousins’ East Lake Foundation bought a dilapidated historic course — the roof of its Tudor clubhouse collapsing, the weeds starting to win — as part of a grander design to uplift the blighted neighborhood surrounding it.

“Golf really had nothing to do with what we started out here,” Cousins said. That, he said, just sort of came along for the ride.

Now 81, old enough to navigate between eras that he both occupied and helped define, Cousins remains the soul of the East Lake story.

At one moment, he can conjure a stark vision about what might have become of the East Lake Golf Club, back in the early ’90s when Bobby Jones’ incubator went bust:

“(The group that owned East Lake) got into financial trouble, and the court ordered the sale of it,” Cousins said. “One of the bidders was a junkyard. And I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, what else could happen out here?’ It was one thing to have a defunct golf course over there. But a junkyard?”

The next, he will brag on the charter school built through the efforts of the foundation that has been identified as the best performing school in the Atlanta system. Visitors to this year’s Tour Championship pass the tall cranes and the steel and concrete skeleton of the latest project, a charter high school scheduled to be completed next year. It is the tangible reminder that the community-building at East Lake is not finished.

How’s this for a range of experience: As a teenager, Cousins, from behind a tree behind the 13th green at East Lake, watched Jones hit what he still regards as one of the greatest shots he has ever seen. A short iron, shaped around tree trouble to one foot. And now, all these decades later, his back is so troublesome that Cousins can’t walk Jones’ classic course, the one he saved from ruin, even as so many others enjoy it this week. Hasn’t played it in almost two years, he figures. Old age is such a thief.

“I’ve been accused of doing all this so I’d have a better place to play golf. You can’t imagine what some people say,” Cousins said, bemusedly. The man has left fingerprints all over Atlanta. He developed the CNN Center and the 50-story 191 Peachtree Tower. He brought the Hawks to Atlanta from St. Louis and started up and then shipped off the NHL’s Flames. It’s not like he has ever run into a shortage of fancy golf courses willing to take his money, whenever he is in shape to play.

The golf club and the big season-ending tournament anchored there are a means to a greater end. East Lake corporate members contribute $200,000 up front to the charitable foundation. Proceeds from the Tour Championship all flow that direction, too.

Get him going on the two decades-long rebuilding of the area around East Lake — once infamously labeled Little Vietnam for its level of violence — and an octogenarian gets a second wind. The passion Cousins brought to the project all those years ago has not dimmed as the bars came off the windows in the neighborhood and families strolled the sidewalks again.

He remains quite capable of saying things grand and quixotic.

“My big passion at the moment: There is a solution to poverty,” he said.

“I know what you’re thinking: B.S. But I can show you. You can’t show me where we can’t. You can’t say it’s preposterous. It’s happened here, and it needs to happen across the country.”

He not only breaks out the big ideal for the “purpose built communities” plan that was begun at East Lake and has spread to other places such as New Orleans and Indianapolis. He’ll do it for a golf tournament, too.

He never wanted anything minor league for East Lake. Originally, as news spread in the mid-’90s that the club was being remade, the PGA Tour approached with the idea of bringing in a mini-tour level event on an annual basis. “I said uh-uh, if we ever have a golf tournament, it ain’t gonna be the second rank,” Cousins said.

While the state of the golf club and its status now as a Tour Championship fixture is “better than I ever imagined,” Cousins has but one choice now. Gin up his imagination

How about foreseeing a day when, “They open the majors in Georgia, and I think one day they are going to close it with a major in Atlanta.”

Or a day when tickets to the Tour Championship are as difficult to get as a Masters badge? “I think they’re going to be scarce as hens’ teeth. And when that happens, it will raise even more money for charity,” Cousins said.

Setting at the intersection of the past and the present, Cousins looks out the window to the Tour Championship and is bullish on the future.

Too many do not recognize the Tour Championship as an event of great magnitude, both to the community and to the players. If there is one thing Cousins can’t abide, it is thinking small.

“Let me assure you of this, they will recognize it,” he said.

“Football has started, golf is forgotten. But I want to tell you what, that will not be the case for long. I will almost guarantee you that won’t be that case next year. Because we’re going to come out of the closet. We’re going to tell people what this thing is all about.”