At first glance they wouldn’t seem to have much in common.
John Higgins is in his mid-60s and owns Lexus of Dayton. For decades he’s also raced sports cars — he won the 12 Hours of Sebring (Camel GTP Lights class) in 1987 and often has run the grueling 24 Hours of Daytona — and he’s a low-handicap golfer who plays courses all around the country.
Laurasia Freeman is 10. She’s a fourth-grader at Fairborn Intermediate School. She likes roller skating, Kung Fu and especially animals. One day she said she wants to be a veterinarian. When it comes to golf, she and her 7-year-old sister Kali, a Fairborn first grader, said they have played a couple of holes but never a full nine.
Monday, though, Higgins and the girls were together at NCR Country Club.
Higgins sponsored the Lexus of Dayton Golf Classic, an 18-hole event that played out on NCR’s fabled South Course and benefited The First Tee of Greater Miami Valley, a youth development program that not only teaches kids to play golf, but more importantly uses the game to build character and teach positive life lessons.
The girls — who are involved in First Tee at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and are among the nearly 6,000 kids the Greater Miami Valley chapter reached in Montgomery, Warren and Butler counties in 2012 — were beneficiaries of the fund-raising efforts of Higgins and many other giving folks who took part in Monday’s outing.
“The ultimate goal is to use golf as a platform to turn kids into positive citizens away from the golf course,” said Brian Parkhurst, executive director of The First Tee of Greater Miami Valley. “We stress nine core values (honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment) that are all inherent in the game of golf and hopefully kids embrace them to become positive citizens in school and at home.”
As the First Tee folks point out, that framework is needed now more than ever. In the combined Dayton, Middletown, Hamilton and Cincinnati area they found 10,500 students — or 27 percent — dropped out of school from the Class of 2010.
First Tee began in 1997 after Tiger Woods won the Masters. His father met with PGA director Tim Finchem and they formulated the golf-as-a-life-changer concept for kids. To date the program has reached 7.6 million children through programs at golf courses, schools and at military installations.
Parkhurst said there are now 188 First Tee chapters in the nation and seven in Ohio. The Greater Miami Valley chapter soon hopes to expand to Clark, Greene, Clinton and Preble counties. At present the program is especially involved with the City of Dayton Parks and Recreation department and Dayton Public Schools, where it’s found a like-minded sponsorship partner in the Brian Hafer Foundation.
Higgins said he initially heard about the First Tee program some five years ago:
“I wondered how it worked so I went over to Community (golf course) and I saw how intent the young kids were in what was being taught. They weren’t just learning to play golf, they were being taught lessons they could use in their everyday life: How you wait your turn, be respectful of each other, count your score and be honest.
“You saw them learn perseverance and get a sense of accomplishment when they finally hit a good shot. You could see kid’s faces just light up. …I was impressed.”
Although he has had considerable success in the business world, Higgins is known in the community as a guy who gives back.
Parkhurst said the Lexus Golf Classic is one of the two major fund raisers the First Tee Greater Miami Valley has had this year.
The other was a private wine and dine event put on at the Cincinnati home of Lorraine and Joe Mayernik, the CEO of Healthcare Waste Solutions.
“Golf is an absolute reflection of life,” Mayernik said Monday. “You’re called on to make judgments, to be resilient after you hit a bad shot, to learn to accept the bad and the good. Those are all great lessons to instill in our youth.”
And that’s what happens in the program, said 17-year-old Shayan Assani, a junior at Lakota West High School, and Fairfield’s Alex Zorniger, 19-year-old sophomore at Tufts University.
Assani started with First Tee in Hamilton five years ago. Zorniger was in the program through junior high and high school. Both spoke at Monday’s event and said their involvement in First Tee has helped shape their lives.
For reasons like that, Higgins said he hopes to become more and more involved with First Tee. He said he is going to make a presentation to Lexus in hopes of getting the company involved on the national level.
On the local level, Parkhurst said the Greater Miami Valley chapter hopes to be reach 13,500 children by 2015. Anyone who wants to help can do so by visiting the website www.thefirstteegmv.org.
The benefits of the program were never more evident than when Laurasia was called to the front of the room at the post-tournament dinner to say a few words. She moved a box behind the podium and stepped up she could see the crowd and say in that young girl voice just how much she liked being a part of First Tee.
Higgins sat in the back of the room with a smile, but if you listened to Laurasia afterward you realized the two of them still didn’t have that much in common.
“My sister and I have played a couple golf holes so far and she’s hit the ball in the sand, but I’ve never been in the trap,” she said proudly. “Nope, I’ve never been in the sand.”
John Higgins cannot say that.
Award-winning columnist Tom Archdeacon writes about sports, the city, southwest Ohio and anything else that catches his fancy … or yours.