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“This is the 3 o’clock starting time. Now on the tee, representing First Tee of North Florida:
…a future doctor…Mombo Ngu.
…an incoming collegiate golfer at Flagler College…Grace Richards.
…a computer science innovator…Matthew Yang.
…an aspiring entrepreneur…Brandon Matthews.”
Several years ago, if you would have told these four First Tee participants that they would have the opportunity to tee it up on THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, they probably wouldn’t have believed you.
But on August 15, 2020, each of these golfers fulfilled a dream.
The moment each of them stepped onto the tee box and heard their name announced by Doug Kidd, THE PLAYERS Championship’s longtime featured groups announcer, was more than just a nerve-wracking, heart-pumping experience. It was a culmination of years of hard work, of overcoming obstacles, learning how to bounce back from bad shots and spending hours out on the range, determined to get better.
Ultimately, this moment was symbolic of all of the times when they didn’t want to practice or play, but their coaches and friends at First Tee encouraged them to give it another shot; when they didn’t have the confidence to take the next step, but their First Tee community gave them the nudge they needed; when they didn’t see anyone that looked like them on the range, but they continued to show up and pursue their passion. They kept on setting goals and achieving them, one step, one shot at a time.
Had it not been for the First Tee, this foursome of golfers – representing various nationalities, life experiences and career aspirations – may never have stepped onto the first tee at THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. They may never have picked up a golf club. Their lives, their dreams may have looked very different.
Each March, hundreds of thousands of fans from across the globe travel to Ponte Vedra Beach to witness the strongest field of professional golfers take on one of the most prestigious and challenging courses on the PGA TOUR: THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. To win the PGA TOUR’s flagship event is to join a list of the game’s greatest players in the modern era who have etched their names on the trophy:
Jack Nicklaus. Greg Norman. Fred Couples. Tiger Woods. Phil Mickelson. Rickie Fowler. Rory McIlroy.
With this list of iconic winners comes some of the most thrilling and dramatic moments that have unfolded over the years at THE PLAYERS Stadium Course.
How could you forget Tiger Wood’s “Better than Most” putt in 2001?
What about Rickie Fowler making birdie on the 17th hole five out of six times on Championship Sunday en route to his victory in 2015?
And, of course, there’s the iconic moment when Jerry Pate and Pete Dye jumped into the lake in 1982, the first year THE PLAYERS was contested on the Stadium Course.
Nearly 40 years removed from Pate’s swan dive, Mombo, Grace, Matthew and Brandon each got their ‘defining moment’ on the Stadium Course…the chance to walk the same fairways as Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler and so many others; the chance to land it on the infamous Island Green 17th hole on their first attempt; the chance to make their own history.
“It was amazing to feel like I was one of the players,” said Brandon Fowler when he recalled making the iconic walk from 16 green to 17 tee. “A whole bunch of players have hit where I’m hitting right now. I have a chance. It’s once-in-a-lifetime to come and hit off the tee box.”
“My past self, my younger self, Mombo just starting golf and hating it, would be surprised and honestly encouraged to see Mombo today playing the Stadium Course,” said Ngu, a rising junior at the University of Florida studying Sociology with a Pre-Med Track. “Being able to meet with so many different people and being able to just push forward in whatever I do.”
Several weeks prior to this round, First Tee of North Florida Executive Director Jeff Willoughby was meeting with a former First Tee of North Florida coach, Chet Stokes, who is now the general manager at Marsh Landing Country Club, a short drive from TPC Sawgrass. At the end of their meeting, Stokes reached into his desk and pulled out four passes to the Stadium Course.
“Take three kids out that want to go play the Stadium Course that deserve to play, and go out and have a good day,” Willoughby recalled Stokes telling him.
Willoughby was stunned. “This is a bucket list item for them.”
Willoughby had played the Stadium Course before, so he knew all four spots should go to four deserving First Tee golfers. He called a member of THE PLAYERS Championship team to share this unique opportunity, which is when the idea was hatched to make this experience even more special: pair each golfer with a PGA TOUR employee as a caddie.
“The First Tee is all about mentorship,” Willoughby said. “They are going to build lifelong relationships with their caddies, whether it’s a mentor for career exploration or just somebody they can call on when they get stuck in a bind.”
Better yet, TPC Sawgrass provided customized PLAYERS caddie bibs displaying each golfer’s name, and 2-time PGA TOUR winner and First Tee of North Florida ambassador Len Mattiace joined the group to offer swing tips and advice along the way.
When Ngu received a phone call from Willoughby informing her of this dream round, she cried.
Grace Richards was at the golf course when she took Willoughby’s call.
“I freaked out,” said Richards, who has already accepted a golf scholarship to play for Flagler College. “I kind of scared everyone else on the driving range because I could not believe it.”
When Drake Mosley, a data analyst for the PGA TOUR in the Golf Course Properties division, was asked by his PGA TOUR colleague to caddie for Ngu, it was a no brainer.
“I see myself in these kids’ shoes,” Mosley said.
Not too long ago, Mosley was in their shoes.
He began participating at First Tee of the Golden Triangle in North Carolina when he was 10 years old. But it wasn’t ‘love after first swing.’
“I hated golf,” said Mosley. “But then I realized it really isn’t all about drills and staying at the golf course late…it’s really about having fun and building life core values.”
For Mosley, the First Tee has been “a catalyst to a lot of life adventures,” including job opportunities and lifelong friendships.
“My father was the only source of income for our family of seven, which made the fees and membership dues for our local junior golf tournaments impossible to pay for,” Mosley said. “With the support of the First Tee’s scholarship fund, it afforded me the ability to remain competitive at an early age which later on prepared me for my collegiate golf career [at Talladega College in Alabama].”
While in college, Mosley interned for Golf Channel’s marketing team, and after graduation, he landed a job with First Tee headquarters prior to joining the PGA TOUR in 2019. He currently serves as co-chair of one of the PGA TOUR’s Diversity & Inclusion groups, CORE, whose mission is to assist in the evolution of culture change at the TOUR and celebrate diversity among the organization’s global workforce.
“First Tee gave me the courage, the confidence to say, ‘I want more than just what’s ordinary,’” Mosley said.
“If all your friends look just like you, I think you’re doing the wrong thing. I think you really need to start branching out as an individual…First Tee gives exposure to a lot of diverse candidates who never would have picked up that golf club and never would have opened that door and had exposure to life skills…and that’s a future I want to be a part of.”
That future became a reality when Mombo, Grace, Brandon and Matthew brushed off their jitters, visualized their opening tee shots, and confidently hit their drives on the first hole.
“That is exactly what we wanted the kids to earn and accomplish, setting goals and being able to do that,” Willoughby said. “A lot of these kids had a lifelong dream of playing the Stadium Course, and they accomplished that.”
However, they weren’t just fulfilling a dream, checking an experience off their bucket lists and playing where the pros play. They were paving the way for peers across the country, and all across the world, to follow in their footsteps.
“Anything is possible,” said Ngu. “Me being here and hopefully some kid who is clicking on that screen seeing my face would be encouraged to say, ‘Hey, why not do something that everyone else says isn’t for me? Technically nothing in this world isn’t for you. You can do whatever you want as long as you have your heart and passion for it.”
So, what’s next for this foursome?
Brandon Fowler wasn’t shy about sharing his goal:
“I’m going to try my best to get back here.”
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