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Now for the encore: After making history last year, the Drew Charter School golf team is ready for its title defense

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Now for the encore: After making history last year, the Drew Charter School golf team is ready for its title defense

After making history last year, the Drew Charter School golf team is ready for its title defense

    Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR

    They’ve had a while to let it sink in. The historic significance. The bond they’ll always share.

    Charles R. Drew Charter School in Southeast Atlanta, which last May became the first all-black high school team and first public school in the city to win the Georgia (public-school) state boys’ golf championship, opens defense of its title as the season begins this month. Optimism abounds.

    “We’re looking strong,” says Nyre Williams, a Director at The First Tee of Metro Atlanta and an assistant coach at Drew. “We lost three seniors, but we’ve got a pipeline here.”

    He would know; Williams also coaches Drew Charter’s middle school golfers.

    After taking state last May, the Drew high boys basked in their accomplishment and filed off the bus and into the embrace of joyous and proud family members. They received rings they helped design themselves at a ceremony in November.

    “Seeing the kids just so happy,” fifth-year head coach Joe Weems says of his personal highlight. “Coming back to the school and seeing the families, seeing everybody so overjoyed and relieved that we had won. Putting on that championship ring was an amazing experience.”

    The whole world, it seemed, took notice. The Drew kids were recognized by the government of DeKalb County, and were practically celebrities at the TOUR Championship in August, meeting stars such as Tony Finau and Kevin Kisner. Attending the ceremony for 2019 Calvin Peete Award recipient Harold Varner III in October, their jaws dropped when Varner’s manager told them the HV3 Foundation would be donating $5,000 to the program.

    “This is just the beginning of my relationship with those kids and coaches,” Varner told Golfweek. “… I can’t wait to create a bond with them.”

    It’s heady stuff, but this week they open the new season, and everyone starts at zero.

    Anthony Ford, Drew’s No. 1 last year and one of 78 members of The First Tee to play in the PGA TOUR Champions PURE Insurance Championship in September – which, like this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, uses Pebble Beach Golf Links as the host course – returns for his senior year. He recently signed for a full scholarship to play golf at North Carolina A&T.

    Sophomore Miles Richardson returns, as do senior Connor Mason, who can play both lefthanded and righthanded, and others. Enough team members shoot in the 70s and 80s to fuel hopes of a repeat. “I really like our chances again this year,” Williams says.

    Weems doesn’t disagree.

    “That’s the attitude I definitely would want us to have,” he says.

    Starting from scratch

    Not long ago, the Drew Charter School couldn’t field a full team of players who could compete over 18 holes, and other schools sometimes balked at the idea of scheduling a match.

    Now look at them.

    “We are like pioneers,” Mason told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last summer.

    Indeed, the Drew Eagles beat the two-time defending state champions by an audacious 15 strokes. From there, they represented Georgia at the High School Golf National Invitational at Orlando’s Disney World in June, when they finished 20th.

    Solomon Dobbs, who now plays golf for Morehouse College, says being a member of the state-title-winning team last year has forever changed his life.

    “I think about the power of connections,” says Dobbs, who hit the ceremonial first tee shot at the TOUR Championship in 2016 and 2018 and imagines returning to Drew one day to coach golf. “I’ll get calls from my teammates asking if I want to go play somewhere, and I still talk to Coach Nyre and Coach Joe. How’s it going? Do you need any help? The bond is so strong.”

    Weems marvels at all the things that fell into place to make it happen, starting with the photo of himself with his arms around his first bag of clubs when he was 8. His late father, Joe Sr., who drove 18-wheelers and owned his own trucking company, gave the clubs to him out of the blue. “I was so new to it I didn’t even know how to hold them,” Weems says with a laugh. He sometimes shows the photo to Drew parents in order to cultivate buy-in.

    Look what can happen when you put your child into golf.

    In 1980, Weems’ great uncle, Miles Craddick, then a caddie at Athens (Georgia) Country Club, taught the boy how to build a nine-hole backyard course using Styrofoam cups with the bottoms carved out. It was the year that gave us PAC-MAN, the Rubik’s Cube and Atlanta-born CNN. No one was shouting the praises of East Lake, then a go-at-your-own-risk type of area, but that began to change in the mid-1990s when the East Lake Foundation started revitalizing the neighborhood.

    Golf was central to the effort, and when Drew opened in 2000, it was conveniently located within walking distance of East Lake Golf Club – former home of Bobby Jones and host course for the TOUR Championship – and the nine-hole, par-30 Charlie Yates Golf Course.

    Drew began offering the sport in P.E. classes through The First Tee – there are now three certified instructors at the school – and Dobbs started taking golf in the second grade. Ford, who broke the back window of his family’s Jeep Cherokee with one of his first swings, started the same way. Kids continue to learn the fundamentals, plus etiquette and caddie protocol. (If you play East Lake, you just might get a Drew player on your bag.)

    Success didn’t happen overnight, but some kids took to it and pulled their peers up with them.

    “We try to mentor these kids, too,” Weems says. “It’s not just golf, it’s about having someone they can go to throughout the day just in general. I’m real big on culture and climate. The culture is having a winning attitude, but the climate is about family and taking care of one another.”

    The pipeline was born.

    Looking ahead

    Could this be a dynasty? Perhaps. Although African American representation in golf has been historically low, Drew continues to make the most of some unique advantages.

    “Having two golf courses in between our school has helped,” Weems says. “Charlie Yates being our home, kids can walk right to the course. And East Lake, these kids have access to see things that a lot of kids don’t, and that’s a real advantage.”

    Things like the annual TOUR Championship, with 30 of the best golfers on the planet.

    “Every kid in our program either volunteered or was out in the course with their parents,” Weems says. “We make sure the conversation about golf is happening year-round, with clinics and tournaments and workouts. I want them to be around it as much as they can.”

    How’s this for golf immersion? Williams once took four First Tee kids to Scotland, where they stayed on the University of St. Andrews campus and played some of the game’s most famous courses. The highlight: a surprise tee time at the Old Course. Not a bad field trip.

    What Drew has accomplished continues to resonate on TOUR and beyond, no place more loudly than the hallways of the school itself, where the state championship hardware lives in a trophy case. Not surprisingly, interest is up. “I expect more than 35 kids to try out this year,” Weems says. “We started out with 21 my first year, and we’ve been growing ever since.”

    For the boys’ team, the differences going into this season would seem to be small. Two local chapters of The First Tee merged to form The First Tee of Metro Atlanta last summer. There will be a dedicated junior varsity team this year. And one of Drew’s returning players, senior Mason, has decided to go back to lefthanded this season after one season as a righty.

    “I kept telling him I thought his scores were better as a lefty when he was a sophomore, when he shot in the mid-80s,” Weems says. “Last year he was in the 90s as a righty.”

    Historic. Dynastic. Ambidextrous. There seems to be no limit to what Drew can do.

    Oh, there’s one other big difference now that Drew is the reigning state champ. Weems has no more trouble scheduling other teams to play his own. (Go figure.)

    “We try to play the programs who were always willing to play us, which we didn’t always have,” he says. “We want programs like Maynard Jackson (a nearby high school named after the city’s first black mayor) to keep growing because it’s better for all of us, so we invest into those other programs in the community and make sure they’re doing great, too.”

    Can Drew repeat? Maybe, but that’s not the point. Maybe it’s more about access and opportunity. Maybe it’s about that bond and getting into a game you can play for a lifetime. Weems, who began his coaching career in football – Drew has no football team – sometimes thinks about Joe Sr., who died about 10 years ago. What would he say?

    “He loved to watch Calvin Peete on TV, and Tiger, of course,” Weems says. “He said, ‘Son, there are a lot of things that happen out on the golf course. You’ve got to be able to interact with people.’ He would always say to me as a football coach, ‘One day you’re going to coach a champion.’ Little did I know that he could see that far ahead.”

    Cameron Morfit began covering the PGA TOUR with Sports Illustrated in 1997, and after a long stretch at Golf Magazine and joined PGATOUR.COM as a Staff Writer in 2016. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.

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