Joe Louis Barrow Jr., was once the CEO of Izzo, a small company that had a novel golf product: the first double-strap for bags that greatly lessened the strain on the shoulders of caddies or golfers who wanted to walk.
There was one problem: the major golf-bag manufacturers wouldn’t use the double strap or license it. Barrow came up with a risky proposition.
“If they wouldn’t use our straps then we’d get into the bag business ourselves,” he said.
The result: manufacturing golf bags resulted in a jump in sales of $300,000 in the early 1990s to $15 million by the turn of the century.
Barrow applied a similar principle to the growth of The First Tee. When he became the CEO in 2000, the organization to make golf more accessible and affordable to young people was off to a pretty good start: 100 facilities open or in development, which had reached about 15,000 youth in the first three years since the initiative was launched in late 1997 by the World Golf Foundation.
But Barrow wanted it to be more than teaching golf. So he integrated life skills and The First Tee’s nine Core Values, established relationships with other youth organizations such as the Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCAs, and then took the game to where the children were, at elementary schools.
Today, more than 8,000 schools in 1,200 school districts offer introductions to golf with
First Tee instructors or physical education teachers trained in the organization’s methods of both teaching golf and incorporating life skills. Combined with more than 1,000 First Tee golf courses and practice facilities, the reach is now 15 million young people.
In North Florida, The First Tee has reached more than 71,000 youth in eight counties, with 17 program locations.
One of The First Tee’s core values comes to mind: perseverance. It’s Barrow’s favorite, and he said it impacts the others on the list (honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, courtesy and judgment).
“If you don’t persevere in life and on the golf course, you can’t succeed,” he said. “If people don’t give up they respect themselves and have confidence. Judgement comes into play. Sportsmanship. If adversity comes, you can go either left or right.”
It’s been mostly right about The First Tee in the 18 years under Barrow, until he retired in November. And on Wednesday, he will be honored at the sixth annual First Coast Celebration of Golf Banquet as the fourth recipient of the Deane Beman Award for service to golf. The previous recipients were the trophy’s namesake and former PGA Tour commissioner, Herb Peyton and John Hayt.
The banquet will be at the World Golf Hall of Fame, across the pond from The First Tee national office.
“I’m flattered to be following Deane, Herb and John,” Barrow said. “Each of those individuals meant so much to our community and it’s a great statement about The First Tee and what it’s been able to do not only in North Florida, but the country.”
Barrow, 71, was praised by former Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
“He came in at a time when The First Tee was off to a good start, but it was really still in its infancy,” Finchem said. “What Joe was able to do during his tenure drove all of the incredible growth that has happened since. In addition to his passionate commitment to making The First Tee’s mission a reality, the key factor in his success was his incredible ability to connect with people and communicate to them … to inspire them, really.”
That’s a common thread about Barrow when talking to those who worked with him.
“He’s one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet and his mission of reaching out, via golf, for youth development was unparalleled,” said Boots Farley, former First Tee of North Florida director. “As a PGA member, we always talked about getting into the schools and some chapters or individual pros did it, but Joe got The First Tee into it on a nationwide basis, reaching hundreds of thousands of kids.”
Barrow’s wife, Amy, said her husband’s people skills went a long way to convincing various constituencies — local governments, school boards, PGA and LPGA professionals, youth organizations and other golf governing bodies — that The First Tee was important not only because young people may get some golf lessons, but because young people would get life lessons.
“He’s such a good manager of people,” she said. “He listens, he has his thoughts and his ideas, but he will absolutely listen to anyone and everyone who has an opinion. He’s not afraid to change his mind based on the thoughts of other people, and those other people know their opinion is valued.”
Barrow said he’s tried to stress to First Tee directors and staff nationwide that one of the organization’s core values — respect — is what enables them to best reach children who come to First Tee facilities sorely in need of direction in life. He said too often, adults dismiss children and youth as having “no respect.”
He has a favorite phrase: “Young people don’t care what you know until they know that you care.”
“It goes both ways,” he said. “The responsibility of respect is on the adults as much as on the young person. It’s important for adults to show a young person they care about them. Once they cross that threshold, they will listen to what you have to say.”
Barrow stresses the respect angle from adults in The First Tee so much that he discourages the use of the word “kids.”
“They’re people,” he said. “And a lot of the ones we get at The First Tee don’t feel loved or respected. Because of that, society may view them as throw-aways, but young people are not throw-aways.”
Finchem said it was that kind of thinking that was at the heart of The First Tee movement.
“The way [Barrow] articulated — to thousands of people from all across the country — the mission of The First Tee and its positive impact on young people and the game of golf underpinned the growth of the program for nearly two decades,” he said. “We’ll always be indebted to him for making The First Tee what it is today.” TNS