2006: Woods inspires Windons to Ivy League educations
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Play golf long enough and eventually some stranger in a passing car will yell “Fore!” out the window, perfectly timed to disrupt the middle of your backswing. If you’re a black child playing the game in the heart of south central Los Angeles, the messages are more like drive-by insults.
Charlie Windon and his three kids are longtime fixtures of LA’s Maggie Hathaway Par 3 Golf Course. Windon recalls his youngest son, Charles, being told to “go get a life” among other things while practicing his short game.
It’s no wonder Charles was hesitant to tell people he was on the Tiger Woods Foundation National Junior Golf Team.
“Golf is not an (embracing) sport,” says Charlie Windon, a California criminal defense attorney.
Which is precisely why the Windons often tell friends at church to meet them at the par 3 course Sunday afternoons for impromptu lessons. They know it takes a community effort.
The Windon kids – Annika, Christian and Charles – are among the few black players to break out of inner-city programs and compete nationally on prominent junior circuits, and in the case of the two oldest, at Division I college programs. Annika will enter her junior year at Princeton University, where her brother Christian will join her in the fall. Like Annika, Christian plans to juggle golf along with the rigors of Ivy League academia. Charles Windon recently represented the Tiger Woods Foundation in the inaugural Friendship Cup, which matched Woods’ team against the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation Junior Team. He’ll be a junior at Palos Verdes Peninsula High.
It seems fitting that two Windon kids likely will compete for the Princeton Tigers this year while the third represents Woods. To say Tiger inspired this family of high-achievers wouldn’t do his impact justice.
“We have every book that’s been written by (Tiger) and his dad,” Charlie Windon says. “It’s the Bible of training. . . . You add what you need to it and try to get to a higher place in life.”
Ten years ago Windon took the kids along for his first golf lesson. The youngsters laughed so hard at their father’s swing, he told the peanut gallery they ought to give it a try.
“They were born to play,” says the proud father, who took one look at their swings and never took another lesson himself.
Windon drove 80 miles round-trip every Saturday for a year to get his children proper instruction. Another facility they had access to was 30 miles away – Chester Washington Golf Course, or the “Country Club in the ’Hood,” as the Windons called it.
It wasn’t long after they picked up the game that the children auditioned for a Tiger Woods American Express commercial being shot in Los Angeles. Charles got a part hitting balls in the background and took a few pointers from the World No. 1.
From then on it was all things Tiger: equipment, balls, books, fist pumps and Sunday red. They watched countless clips of Tiger’s swing, trying to replicate his every move. They followed him at tournaments. They dreamed big.
From inner-city programs such as the Western States Golf Association and LPGA Urban Youth, the Windons graduated to Southern California Junior Golf Association tournaments. Through the National Minority Golf Foundation, they then got exemptions into the International Junior Golf Tour and American Junior Golf Association events.
“The kids can get so wrapped up in these inner-city programs that you never get to the AJGA or the IJGT,” Charlie Windon says. “(They) think these tournaments are the world. That’s where these kids get stuck.”
But even when youngsters have the wherewithal to upgrade from mom-and-pop programs to a worldwide stage, the transition isn’t easy. As the competition stiffened, Windon watched the air seep out of his sons’ egos. He also watched his money disappear.
The father recalls standing in a hotel lobby the night before a state high school championship hoping his credit card wouldn’t be denied. He still searches for specials on rental cars and sticks to tournaments within a 400-mile radius.
“I push, beg and finagle,” Windon says.
In many ways, he feels akin to the late Earl Woods. He won’t take ‘no’ for an answer and goes to great lengths to provide opportunities for his family. Apparently folks at the Tiger Woods Foundation felt the same way. They honored Windon three years ago with the Earl Woods Award, given to the parent who most emulates Tiger’s father.
“When you’re on this journey you feel so lonely,” he says. “But when you open up a book about Earl Woods or Tiger you don’t feel so bad. There’s a path out there.”
Before leaving for Princeton, Annika helped her high school team win two state titles. The 20-year-old developed a solid short game thanks in part to the generosity of Donald Trump. While Trump National-Los Angeles was under construction, Annika was allowed to practice on the 12th green. She took full advantage of the opportunity, spending three to four hours per day on the weekends working on her private practice green.
Yet despite all the efforts, her father still feels he came up short.
“I know Annika could’ve developed into a very fine player for the LPGA, but it just came down to dollars and cents,” he says.
Annika may not have any plans for professional golf, but the game keeps giving in ways she could never imagine. Golf-related connections helped the molecular biology major land a summer internship on Wall Street. Annika spends her weekdays working at Morgan Stanley in the community affairs department, and then heads to a Manhattan range on the weekends.
After Princeton, Annika plans to pursue medical school. Because Ivy League institutions don’t offer athletic scholarships, it might be tempting for Annika to drop the game and concentrate on her studies. There were times last fall when she traveled with the team that it all seemed too much to handle.
But quitting wouldn’t reflect the message she tells young girls in inner-city golf programs summer after summer.
“I’m just trying to fight through now,” Annika says. “Just showing other girls that it’s possible to go to
a great school, play golf and not get sidetracked – set the foundation for the future.”
There’s no question Annika’s future holds great promise, but professional golf likely won’t be part of it. With a 82.38 stroke average, medical school seems more appropriate for Windon than LPGA Q-School. She knows it; her father knows it.
But that road very well could have been an option if Annika could have attended an elite golf academy dedicated to minority youth. Like many black parents involved in junior golf, Charlie Windon believes the creation of such a program would be a “can’t-miss approach.”
To get a feel for what Windon is talking about, one needs to look no further than the efforts of Ernie Els and the Fancourt Foundation. This year, more than 30 underprivileged South African youths moved into the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation Hostel. The boarding school is run by a “house master” who lives on property and handles day-to-day operations, including discipline.
After school the kids head to the golf academy, where the Fancourt coaching staff devises a program specific to each child’s skill level.
The curriculum is divided into four phases, the first of which includes a TaylorMade Performance Lab Swing Assessment. Fitness tests are given once per month, and juniors work out six times per week.
Every facet of the game is covered under the supervision of PGA professional George Harvey: preshot routines, course management, shaping shots, bunker play – the list goes on.
Potential members must be South African citizens, come from a family of “limited resources,” be under age 15 and carry a handicap of 7 or better, among other things. What separates Els’ initiative from the David Leadbetter Academy, however, is this: It’s free.
Fancourt covers everything from books, equipment, club membership, transportation and tournament fees to the shirts on students’ backs. Head to toe, balls to bags, these kids are equipped with the best resources money can buy. Only it’s not their money.
It’s a lofty endeavor, but one Charlie Windon feels would pay dividends in America for generations to come. While his son, Charles, played in the Friendship Cup last month, Windon got up-close-and-personal with the Fancourt program.
“I was just so impressed,” he says. “They will have a black (player) on the PGA Tour much faster than we will.”
For all his efforts, Charlie Windon may not have one child who pursues the game professionally. But he’ll undoubtedly have three college-educated professionals who can return to south central Los Angeles and relate stories of where the game took them.
Windon often wakes in the middle of the night, counts his blessings and sends a prayer of thanksgiving. When Annika calls from New York to talk about her latest adventure, Charlie gently reminds her, “It’s not about you, sugar.
“You were put in that position to spread the message.”
A message of hope.