Eight-year-old Leroy Sparrow knew very little about golf before he started playing one year ago. He and his family went on a trip to San Antonio and saw kids playing the sport in a park.
Through The First Tee of Greater Tyler, Leroy is “doing that” and enjoying every minute of it.
“I like when I hit, driving balls off the driving range,” he said. “I like to putt.”
His mother said she's noticed how his character and actions are changing because of what he is learning in the program.
“He's using a lot of his core values at home as well as at school,” she said.
Leroy is one of more than 130 children involved in the The First Tee of Greater Tyler organization.
The organization, which began in July 2011, is a youth development organization that focuses on building life skills and character development through the game of golf.
Program director Christian Sarran, with the help of many volunteers, uses the sport to teach children about the nine core values and nine healthy habits.
The core values are: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.
“Golf is kind of the vehicle that we use to keep the kids engaged in the activity,” Executive Director Michael Harrison said by phone.
Just like in other youth organizations, the participants have the opportunity to advance through five levels starting with player and culminating with ace.
Boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 18 are eligible to participate in the program with sessions at Pine Springs Golf Club, Oak Hurst Golf Course or the Boys & Girls Club of East Texas.
In addition, the organization reaches more children through its National School Program, in which PE teachers, trained by The First Tee, take students through a six- to eight-week unit with lessons tied to golf.
Through those classes, the organization spreads the word about its program and helps people to know that golf can be affordable, fun and accessible, Harrison said.
The First Tee of Greater Tyler celebrated on Friday the first of what organizers say will be an annual silent auction, reception and awards dinner.
The event served as a time to recognize those who have contributed to the organization as well as children who have benefited from it.
Past President Nelson Clyde recognized donors to the organization. Bob Dyer, whose family received the sportsmanship award, made a significant contribution to the organization because he was so enthusiastic to see this organization come to Tyler.
Clyde said James and Margaret Perkins not only are personal friends and mentors but give generously of their resources to community endeavors such as The First Tee.
Louis and Peaches Owen were recognized for their “generosity of spirit and heart and soul,” Clyde said.
Sarran recognized some of the volunteers who help make the program possible, including Henry Jones Jr., Lina Acker and Willie Redford.
He said the organization would not be successful “without the help and support of the volunteers.”
Finally, he recognized student participants Leroy Sparrow, Ben Rocha and Annaka Watts for the way they have demonstrated character and some of the core values of the organization.
“One of the things about The First Tee that makes it unique is it's about more than just golf,” Sarran said.
Lietzke encouraged the children to set their own goals and not let the goals of others define them.
He said that when he was growing up he made up an opponent. Although his friend chose Jack Nicklaus, Lietzke chose Johnny.
“To this day I don't know who Johnny was,” he said with a laugh. However, every week he would look up the PGA tournaments in the newspaper and when he played he would play “Johnny” in that tournament. That was his goal.
“You pick your own goals and your motivation,” he told the kids. “Whatever makes you play and play better.”
He encouraged the students to exercise integrity and honesty in the game and in life, telling the story about golfer Blayne Barber who recently called a penalty on himself, disqualifying himself from the PGA Tour's Qualifying Tournament.
“If it helps you sleep good at night, then doing the right thing is always the right thing,” he said.
Finally, Lietzke said when he won his first PGA Tour tournament, his mind returned to where his golf game started.
“It wasn't about the money,” he said. “It wasn't about the trophy. It was about how I got there.”
Anonymous Donor, East Texas Communities Foundation, Louis & Peaches Owen Foundation, RW Fair Foundation
Anonymous Donor, Bob Dyer Family, Brookshire Grocery Company, Citizens First Bank, City of Tyler, Clements Family Foundation, Ed King, Impressive Image Works, Perkins Family Foundation, R&K Distributors, Sealtite Business Fasteners
Capital One, Fourth Partner Foundation, Harold Beaird, Herbert C. Buie, Mentoring Minds, PGA of America Foundation, Texas Spine & Joint Hospital
Hollytree MGA, Jeff Buie, Mark Whatley, Nancy Crim, Sam Greenberg, Southside Bank, Thomas C. Clyde, Travel Masters, Tyler Ford, UT Tyler, Walmart
Chris Hudnall, Danny Nordyke, R.C. Curtis, Randy Grooms, Ron & Merle Mabry, Sharon Howell
Darrell Forster, Jeff Lancaster, Marilyn Richey