While reading some of the tributes written following the recent death of Arnold Palmer, I thought back to that spring day in 2001 when Palmer came to Little Rock. The golf legend was joined by former President George H.W. Bush, Byron Nelson and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem. They had come here because of their respect for Jack Stephens.
It's a safe bet that Stephens didn't think much about golf when he was growing up at Prattsville in Grant County during the Great Depression. As people tried to scratch out a living from the red clay soil in the pine woods of south Arkansas, there wasn't time for golf. Stephens died in July 2005 at age 81. One way his legacy lives on is through a program known as First Tee.
Palmer, Bush, Nelson and Finchem came to Little Rock to celebrate the opening of the First Tee of Central Arkansas complex at the site of the former Rock Creek Golf Course in the south part of the city. Stephens had made a $5 million contribution to help start the program nationally. First Tee is designed to get more children to play golf and teach them life lessons. The First Tee of Central Arkansas became a model program for the country.
Stephens was among the most successful business figures in Arkansas during the 20th century, joining forces with his older brother Witt to earn Stephens Inc. a spot among the nation's largest investment banks. Along the way, Jack Stephens became an icon in the world of golf. Because of his many business connections, Stephens was invited to join the famed Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia in 1962. According to his son Warren, Jack Stephens walked out of a boring social gathering at Augusta one day and was walking alone along the course when someone spoke to him. The man who spoke was sitting on the porch of a house overlooking the course, and a conversation ensued. That conversation led to a friendship between Jack Stephens and the founder of the Augusta National Golf Club, Bobby Jones.
In 1975, Stephens became a member of the executive committee. In 1991, he became only the fourth chairman in club history, serving until 1998. After turning over his duties to Hootie Johnson, Stephens was named chairman emeritus.
At the time of the 2001 First Tee dedication ceremony, Byron Nelson was 89. The winner of an unprecedented 11 consecutive PGA tournaments in 1945, Nelson had lived a lot of golf history. Yet he didn't hesitate to say on that day: "I don't know anybody who has done for golf what Jack Stephens has."
Las Vegas-based writer Jack Sheehan described Stephens as the "soft-spoken gentleman with a buttery Southern drawl who presided over Butler Cabin ceremonies from 1992-98, including Tiger Woods' historic 12-stroke win in 1997, the Nick Faldo-Greg Norman drama of '96, and Ben Crenshaw's emotional 'win it for Harvey Penick' triumph in 1995. One of the few structures allowed on the grounds at Augusta is the Stephens Cabin, a naming privilege that put Jack in company with Bobby Jones, Cliff Roberts and President Dwight Eisenhower."
Warren Stephens said on the day of the 2001 dedication: "Anybody who has ever spent any time with my father knows that golf is important in Dad's life. But to know that you also have to understand that he was somewhat a late arrival to the game. Unlike these young people who will enjoy the Jack Stephens Youth Golf Academy and the opportunities that will come with it, Dad didn't start playing until he was 36 years old. He grew up in a time and a place where golf literally was unthinkable. But I think Dad would agree that golf is a great teacher of life. And that's why Dad firmly believes in exposing young people early on to golf and to the lessons golf teaches."
When the First Tee of Central Arkansas celebrated its 10th anniversary in May 2011, former President George W. Bush was there. He serves as the honorary chairman of First Tee, a role his father played when the program began in 1997. First Tee has now reached more than 5 million children across the country. The program emphasizes nine core values--honesty, perseverance, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, judgment, responsibility and courtesy. Joe Louis Barrow Jr., the chief executive officer, calls the Little Rock program "a model for establishing public and private partnerships that contribute to the well-being of the community. The First Tee is committed to being a force for good in this society, and our programs are proven to have a positive impact on young people."
Jack Stephens once told a reporter: "The skills needed to master this game are the same skills needed to master life, a life full of unseen obstacles and excitement." He also said on a regular basis: "There are only two pleasures associated with money--making it and giving it away." His gift to First Tee bears fruit each day. Because of past Stephens family support, a number of Arkansans believe that First Tee doesn't need outside support. They also incorrectly conclude that it's only for rich kids. And they don't realize that they can play there as adults at reasonable rates. Between now and the end of the year, First Tee of Central Arkansas is trying to raise $150,000 to celebrate the fact that the facility has been around for 15 years.
"Golf is just a way for us to teach young people skills that can be applied to their lives off the course," says Laura Nix, the executive director of the Little Rock facility. "Our goal is to teach children the nine core values that are inherent to the game of golf and then show them how to transfer those values to their everyday lives."
Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the director of corporate community relations for Simmons First National Corp. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 10/19/2016