A Lasting Influence in Golf Descends From a Boxing Legend

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The L.P.G.A., the Masters tournament, the P.G.A. of America, the PGA Tour and the United States Golf Association founded the First Tee program in 1997, the year Tiger Woods became the first African-American to win the Masters. Barrow joined the organization in 2000; at the time, he was chief executive of Izzo Systems, the golf bag manufacturer that introduced the dual strap for carry bags.

“It came down to a question of selling golf bags or impacting the lives of young people,” said Barrow, who became chief executive in 2008.

That sense of responsibility came from his father and his mother, Marva, Louis’s first wife.

“I observed the two of them giving back, and that really impacted me,” said Barrow, 70, who was 33 when his father died, in April 1981, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery on special orders from President Ronald Reagan.

Barrow learned early the influence one person can have. He was 4 when his father, a year into his retirement from boxing, challenged the P.G.A. of America’s Caucasian-only policy by accepting an invitation to play in the 1952 San Diego Open as an exempt amateur. He missed the 36-hole cut, but the precedent of a black man playing in a P.G.A.-sponsored event had been established, even though the P.G.A. did not change its policy until 1961.

Louis took up the game in his early 20s. Barrow first played with his father when he was 5 or 6. They played at Pipe O’ Peace, a course 30 miles south of Chicago that was favored by Louis and other notable black golfers. It was renamed Joe Louis “The Champ” golf course in 1986.

Barrow said golf with his father was special “because there were no interruptions.”

“When we had lunch or dinner together, people always came to our table because they wanted an autograph from the champ,” he added.

“On the golf course it was just me and my father. He would talk about the Max Schmeling fights, share other stories, and also talk about the responsibilities of being a man. That all happened on a golf course.”

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Barrow, pictured in 2013, will retire at the end of the year as chief executive of the First Tee, which provides affordable access to golf for children.

Credit
The First Tee

Barrow remembers also playing with Jesse Owens and Althea Gibson.

What he learned from his father, and he appreciates more today, he said, “is golf forces people to talk, to be human, instead of looking at a television or the screen of a smartphone.”

Louis was known to play as many as 45 holes at a time. Barrow has celebrated milestones in his life with similar marathons. He played 50 holes on his 50th birthday and 60 on his 60th birthday, carrying his bag both times.

In bringing the sport to disadvantaged communities, Barrow said he quickly realized that the First Tee program could have far greater impact as a “youth development organization as opposed to strictly a golf development organization.”

Its Life Skills Experience, which is built around nine core values including integrity, respect and perseverance, now teaches interpersonal relations, self-management and goal-setting at 1,200 golf courses. Its National School Program has been introduced to more than 9,000 schools, and the First Tee also works with 1,200 youth development organizations like Y.M.C.A.s and Boys and Girls Clubs across the United States.

The First Tee’s programs reached 5.3 million young people in 2016; nearly half of the participants in the golf programs are minorities, and 39 percent are girls.

The scope of what the First Tee does has expanded, but, Barrow said, “the mission hasn’t changed.”

That starts with providing its participants with coaches, teachers and mentors. Seeking more than an instructional relationship, the organization seeks to promote lifelong relationships.

Drake Moseley participated in First Tee programs outside Houston for nine years before attending Talladega College in Alabama, from which he graduated in 2016.

The lesson that most sticks with him from the First Tee is his first one. He remembers sitting in a circle with 25 others and being taught how to introduce himself to others, with a firm handshake and the proper exchange of names.

“That was even before we got into the golf,” said Moseley, who attained a full-time position at the First Tee’s headquarters in St. Augustine, Fla., upon graduation. “The first thing you learn is how to carry yourself.”

Taryn Lee spent eight years with the First Tee of Greater Sacramento, which helped her get a golf scholarship at the University of California, Irvine, and an internship with the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she now works as a senior associate. Thanks to the First Tee, she said, “now I can do anything with my life.”

Barrow has left a legacy for himself in golf, but he is sorry to see Joe Louis Arena close.

“If you don’t remember what people contribute to society, our society will be defined by people who may not contribute like others in our past,” he said.

Sports franchises that sell naming rights, he added, are missing opportunities to recognize people who made significant contributions to society. That the Joe Louis name no longer will be a part of the Detroit sports landscape, Barrow said, “gives me more drive to make sure his name will not be forgotten.”



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