Atlanta's Drew Charter School makes high school golf history, attracts attention of Harold Varner III

Joe Weems and Ann Packwood/ Drew Charter School

Atlanta's Drew Charter School makes high school golf history, attracts attention of Harold Varner III

Golf

Atlanta's Drew Charter School makes high school golf history, attracts attention of Harold Varner III

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ATLANTA — The mouths of every coach and player from the Charles R. Drew Charter School boy’s golf team hung open in disbelief.

The team was attending the presentation of the 2019 Calvin Peete Award on Oct. 13 in downtown Atlanta. The award is presented annually to the golfer who best exemplifies the legacy and career of Calvin Peete, the most successful African American to play on the PGA Tour before Tiger Woods. This year, Harold Varner III received the honor while the Drew Charter golf team was in attendance following its historic 2019 season.

In May, the Drew Charter boys golf team won its first state title at Southern Landings in Warner Robins, Georgia, becoming the first Atlanta Public Schools team and first team comprised entirely of African-American players to win a state golf championship.

In celebration of its accomplishment, Drew Charter has received praise over the last few months and has been recognized by the government of DeKalb County, but nothing could prepare the team for what lay ahead at the Calvin Peete Award presentation.

During the festivities, Varner’s manager approached the team and quietly revealed Varner’s HV3 Foundation, which launched in 2018 with the mission of providing all children affordable access to sports, would donate $5,000 to honor the Drew Charter boys.

It was unexpected to say the least.

“Me and the other golfers, we were very surprised,” said Drew Charter junior Jalen Cook. “We came in there, we weren’t expecting any money. We knew we were going to be recognized but we had no idea that there was going to be someone that donated to our program. So it caught us off guard: me, the players and the coaches.”

“I looked at the other coaches and looked at the players and all of our mouths were open. We were very surprised,” head girls and boys golf coach Joe Weems said.

Although Varner was not able to congratulate the team in person due to playing in the CJ Cup at Nine Bridges in South Korea, he still left a personal touch for the team, creating a video expressing his admiration for its historic championship.

“Fortunately for me, I’m still surrounded by the same people who helped me make it and they know what is needed when it comes to supporting kids in the game of golf,” Varner told Golfweek from South Korea. “I’m super happy (the Foundation) decided to make that donation and I’m looking forward to meeting the kids at Drew Charter. I can’t wait to create a bond with them. This is just the beginning of my relationship with those kids and coaches.”

The $5,000 donation could immediately impact the reigning state champions, but Cook sees the financial support from the HV3 Foundation as a building block for the future.

The Drew Charter team, founded 15 years ago, practices at the Charlie Yates Golf Course about half a mile from the school. After winning their first state championship, the dream for both golfers and coaches is creating their own golf facility that can benefit future generations of Drew Charter golfers.

“If we have a golf facility it’s not just for us, but for kids in middle school and elementary school that are coming up in the program,” Cook said. “It’s going to be here for a long time so it’s not just our work that (it will) benefit.”

Not only has the Drew Charter golf team caught the eye of a professional golfer, but they’ve captured the attention of their peers. It’s hard to imagine a school in the South not having a football team, but Drew Charter doesn’t. Instead, over the recent months, the school’s pride has been placed on the golf team — capturing a young, diverse demographic’s attention when golf has stereotypically been a game for affluent, older, white men.

“In the past year or so they see what it has taken (for us to be successful) and how much we’ve been recognized,” said Anthony Ford, a senior and captain of the team. “It’s definitely caught their attention I believe.”

Ford, like every one of his teammates, is involved in the First Tee program in Atlanta. The First Tee has proven to Ford the advantage of golf, not just as a catalyst for success, but as a teacher of life lessons. He thinks his peers have seen the impact as well.

“(The First Tee) teaches you core values. They teach that every week and they actually have financial literacy classes so they’ll teach you about taxes and how to finance and stuff so it goes far beyond golf,” Ford said. “You can see that golf can take you places and the people on our team see it’s going to benefit them in the long run so they’re going to keep at it and keep trying to get better.”

The boy’s and girl’s golf teams from Drew Charter School in Atlanta, Georgia. (Joe Weems/ Drew Charter School)

Ford, who began playing golf in fifth grade through the First Tee, is being recruited by a few programs and hopes to attend college on an athletic scholarship. He said his supportive mother even moved his family from the West Side of Atlanta to the East Lake area so Ford could play golf for free with the First Tee.

In addition to the First Tee program, the Drew Charter golf program has also been assisted by the East Lake Foundation. With help from the school’s East Lake neighbor, assistant coach Nyre Williams said he’s seen growth in the program, which began as a middle school program, and in the East Lake area in general over the past two decades.

Thanks to outside influences like the East Lake Foundation and the First Tee and advocates inside the school itself, Williams said Drew Charter has been able to create a “pipeline” where student create a foundation in Drew Charter middle school golf and the First Tee before flowing to the high school level.

“(By high school) these kids have been playing with each other for a long time,” Williams said. “Now we have a really strong pipeline and I look forward to repeating a state championship for years to come.”

At a young age, Ford and his teammates became involved in a sport that, because of its time commitment and cost, is not accessible to every child. And because of golf’s pace, younger audiences tend to be more captured by sports like football or basketball.

Even with the current golf demographics stacked against them, the team’s dedication, talent and experienced coaches, many of whom are PGA professionals and volunteers with the First Tee, have led to a barrier-breaking narrative and more examples of young, successful, black athletes in golf.

It’s not lost on the Drew Charter boys team that its state title has the power to pave the way for future generations.

“It’s special knowing that something we did will be stretched out so far because we never expected (it),” Cook said. “The season ended in May and this is still a talking point.”

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