Brittany Lincicome puts The First Tee first in St. Petersburg

Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports

Brittany Lincicome puts The First Tee first in St. Petersburg

LPGA Tour

Brittany Lincicome puts The First Tee first in St. Petersburg

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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – This story began with an out-of-the-blue text message from Brittany Lincicome. The two-time major winner wanted to know if she could get some exposure for her January event that benefits The First Tee of St. Petersburg.

“So I have no clue what you can do …” that first text began.

LPGA players are generally more accessible, more DIY than their male counterparts. Even so, it’s unusual for a top-tier player to reach out to the media directly with a pitch rather than an agent or PR agency.

But that’s Lincicome. She wasn’t looking to build up her image. Her motives were pure: Raise awareness and money for a junior program that has been a part of her life since elementary school. Heck, she even offered a place to stay. (Lincicome recently purchased a 5,200-square-foot home that overlooks Boca Ciega Bay for $1.83 million, so there’s plenty of room.)

Entering her 15th year on the LPGA, the 33-year-old Lincicome has won the past two season-opening tournaments.

And while Pure Silk moved its event away from Paradise Island, Bahamas – where Lincicome is twice a champion – the new season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions still will feel quite familiar. Lincicome warmed up for the LPGA season in recent years by competing against PGA Tour Champions players at the Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando, site of the TOC that runs Thursday-Sunday.

Lincicome can’t explain her January success.

She admittedly practiced more when she was younger, has no swing coach and tries to avoid the driving range.

“I’m so visual,” she said. “You go stand in an open field and hit golf balls. I don’t get it.”

Instead, it’s dollar birdie bets with her club’s assistant pro that keep her sharp. She’s currently down $8 and loathing it.

“I don’t want to lose to anybody,” she said, “and I don’t give anybody any strokes.”
(In her defense, Lincicome said, she plays from the tips.)

Another way she starts every year right: giving back.

Short offseason this time

Lincicome’s offseason was short on the “off.” Her December calendar was so crammed we had to squeeze in our visit on the morning of the 15th, before she and her mom embarked on a four-hour-plus drive to Ponte Vedra, Fla., for Len Mattiace’s Pro-Junior Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

Dec 15, 2018; Gulfport, FL, USA; Central Florida native Brittany Lincicome shows off her new First Tee facility in St. Petersburg ahead of her annual charity event and the new Diamond Resorts TOC in Orlando. Brittany has won the last two season-opening events on the LPGA schedule in the Bahamas. She’s now among the headliners at the 2019 season-opening TOC, held on a course in which she has competed against Champions Tour players. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Brittany Lincicome was persistent when it came to sharing the story of The First Tee facility in St. Petersburg, Fla, and the children it benefits. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

After initially missing the turn into Twin Brooks, a nine-hole course on the south side of St. Petersburg, the extra loop around the block helped paint a clearer picture of why this was so important to Lincicome. Golf, a luxury sport, must seem out of reach, even out of mind to those who literally live next door. The neighborhood’s dropout rate is 50 percent, said executive director Rick Waltman, and many kids who come to their program are being raised in single-parent homes. Many of those guardians are grandparents.

“It’s been raining for over 24 hours,” Lincicome texted, followed by two furiously orange emojis. She was desperate to show off The First Tee’s newest addition and the children who benefit from it.

They trickled in that morning, kids of all ages and races, and played games alongside Lincicome on the second floor of the program’s new $767,000 Manning Family Mentoring Center, named for a generous donor. Waltman led his guest outside to the back deck to explain what existed before 2018.

He pointed back toward the Twin Brooks clubhouse, where a small closet once housed their equipment. And then to a patch of grass on the practice range where they put up a tent.

“If it rained it was brutal,” Waltman said. “How are you going to manage 500 kids out of a tent?”

And if it didn’t rain, it was still brutal in the unrelenting summer heat.

Lincicome kickstarted the efforts for the two-story oasis with a check for $77,500, her winnings from the 2011 RR Donnelley Founders Cup. Her annual Brittany & Friends Celebrity Pro-Am, held this year Jan. 9, is the biggest fundraiser of the year for the St. Petersburg chapter. Growing up, Lincicome attended Waltman’s junior camps long before the program became a First Tee chapter in 2005.

Family sacrifice led to LPGA success

An eight-time winner on the LPGA, Lincicome knows how much her middle-class family sacrificed to get her on tour. And she knows the kinds of doors golf can open. Providing a place to learn for kids whose parents can’t afford it, Lincicome said, always has been the No. 1 goal.

“It’s always whatever you need,” Waltman said. “There’s never been an ‘I can’t do that.’ She’s the real deal.”

Thirty-five percent of the kids who come through their program are on scholarship, Waltman said. More than 1,000 kids come through the program’s three courses annually, not counting the outreach efforts at local schools. The ability to offer those discounts has changed the face of junior golf in St. Pete, he said.

“If you go back to the days when I was teaching the regular junior program (prior to The First Tee),” said Waltman, “there were no black kids in junior golf. Period. From 1994 to 2005 I can remember one kid, and that was Jim Dent’s son.”

Dec 15, 2018; Gulfport, FL, USA; Central Florida native Brittany Lincicome shows off her new First Tee facility in St. Petersburg ahead of her annual charity event and the new Diamond Resorts TOC in Orlando. Brittany has won the last two season-opening events on the LPGA schedule in the Bahamas. She’s now among the headliners at the 2019 season-opening TOC, held on a course in which she has competed against Champions Tour players. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

Brittany Lincicome and Jonathan Lampley (center) talk shop at First Tee facility in St. Petersburg, Fla. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

It was around that time that Jonathan Lampley, known at the program as “Tiger,” walked in the door. Lampley was in the third grade when he first came to The First Tee. He balked at the idea initially.

“I said ‘Grandma, who plays golf?’ ” Lampley recalled.

He got hooked immediately, and the Boca Ciega High School junior is now among the county’s best players.

But it wasn’t always a smooth ride. There was a time when Lampley was failing the seventh grade. Even now Waltman feels badly about the fact that it wasn’t until the 11th hour that he realized the once-star student had fallen so far behind. When the principal called from Thurgood Marshall Fundamental, a rigorous academic school that sits across the street from Twin Brooks, Lampley was in dire straits.

“If he makes straight As for that last nine weeks will you pass him?” Waltman asked.

The principal agreed but said it wouldn’t happen.

Waltman set up two tutors, including his own son, who met daily with Lampley after school in a room next to the principal’s office. Nine weeks later he had a report card full of As and an educational path that was back on track.

Setting up a model for others to follow

His story isn’t unique.

Now Lampley is a model for younger kids to follow, when it comes to swing demonstrations and much more.

“I used to look up to those kids,” Lampley said. “Now they look up to me.”

A pint-sized Justice Heatwole, with her puffy pink vest, pastel pants and bright pink shoes, squatted down next to her putter (pink grip) to talk golf. Her father, Mark, stood quietly to the side taking it all in. The bartender at Pasadena Yacht and Country Club signed up his daughter for a camp at The First Tee at the urging of one of Pasadena’s members – Lincicome.

“This program is everything to us,” Mark said. “I’m a single father and have custody of my daughter. It’s just me and her. This past summer I saved up $500 for my 5-year-old daughter to come here for a couple weeks. They gave me all my money back the next day.”

Mark choked up at the gesture. Justice is now a member of the after-school program. She comes to the center to do her homework, makes projects in the new art studio and wins long-drive contests. Mark calls The First Tee a beacon for the community.

Fundraising efforts over the years have included poker tournaments, fishing tournaments, a breakfast of champions, a seafood festival. Many of the events are weather-dependent, and, well, asking for money doesn’t get any easier.

Waltman wanted the program to become more self-sufficient, and earlier this year The First Tee of St. Petersburg eBay golf shop launched. What began in the back of John Kiebzak’s car exploded with help in particular from residents of The Villages, a golf-centric Florida retirement community.

The first floor of the new building is brimming with possibilities. The “Donate a Club, Help a Kid” program not only outfits First Tee participants with equipment, it helps pay the bills.

Dec 15, 2018; Gulfport, FL, USA; Central Florida native Brittany Lincicome shows off her new First Tee facility in St. Petersburg ahead of her annual charity event and the new Diamond Resorts TOC in Orlando. Brittany has won the last two season-opening events on the LPGA schedule in the Bahamas. She’s now among the headliners at the 2019 season-opening TOC, held on a course in which she has competed against Champions Tour players. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

The First Tee of St. Petersburg eBay golf shop is loaded with golf equipment ready for sale. (Douglas DeFelice/USA TODAY Sports)

Waltman and his team take their trailer to area clubs to collect equipment that can be cleaned up and sold for charity. The celebrities who participate in Lincicome’s event – who are not paid to be there – also donate clothes, clubs and shoes.

There are approximately 4,500 listings. Waltman said they’ve hired college students to help catalog and run the enterprise. The goal is to fund a $1 million endowment over the next 10 years to help support the program annually.

“‘Digging it out of the dirt’ is what we sometimes refer the eBay operation to,” said Waltman. “Taking a dirty old club and cleaning it up and putting a new grip on it and turning it into a few dollars. We are trying to teach the kids that hard work still works.”

Eight minutes down the road from Twin Brooks feels like another stratosphere pulling up to the guard gate. Lincicome basically purchased her Florida mansion while dashing to the first tee at a tournament in New Zealand. The realtor called while she was warming up to say that an offer was on the table. Do whatever it takes, said Lincicome, and signed the last document on the tee box.

Typical night? Publix and Uno

Lincicome doesn’t act differently now as the owner of an $1.83 million home than she did as a kid. Nights with her husband, Dewald Gouws, often include a run to Publix and a game of Uno.

“We’re like 80-year-old people already,” she joked.

Their new chocolate lab, Dexter, a surprise that was waiting for Lincicome when she returned from China last fall, provides lovable entertainment.

Dexter soon will join the couple several times a week on their 24-foot Sheaffer boat, christened “Taking Relief” by a Twitter follower.

Gouws, a native South African and former long-drive smasher, wasn’t much of a fisherman when they met. Now he’s on the boat more than his wife.

“I just want to catch Moby Dick,” said Lincicome, who once hooked a 350-pound goliath grouper. “I want to catch the biggest fish I can possibly get. My husband wants to catch dinner.”

The couple is trying to start a family. Lincicome used to think she’d retire before she had kids, but the way the tour is trending, she said it’s “hard to stop and walk away altogether.”

Plus, several of her peers are on the brink of balancing motherhood and tour life for the first time in 2019. She could follow.

For 30 years Lincicome’s parents have operated A Child’s Choice Day Care Center in Pinellas Park. Her mom, Angie, notes that Brittany remains big on naps because everyone in their lives naps from noon to 2 p.m.

Lincicome appreciates the value of a strong support system. The word “family” comes up often when coaches and participants talk about The First Tee.

Antonio Johnson, a gregarious 16-year-old who lives within walking distance of Twin Brooks, has been a part of the program for 10 years and works there in the summers. He marvels at the number of graduates who come back year after year to visit. Johnson credits First Tee coaches for helping him get into the Admiral Farragut Academy, one of only two Honor Naval Schools in the country.

When asked what he ultimately wants to do, Johnson smiled and said, “I want to be remembered for something. Something great.”

The students at The First Tee of St. Petersburg are receiving solid golf fundamentals. But that’s not why Lincicome reached out. It’s everything else that’s going on at this safe haven that’s worth repeating.

“All we’re really trying to do is give them a chance,” Waltman said. “Every kid deserves a chance.” Gwk

(Note: This story appears in the January 2019 issue of Golfweek.)

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