It’s a safe bet that Jack Stephens didn’t think about golf when he was growing up in Prattsville during the Great Depression.
As people tried to scratch out a living from the red clay soil in the pine woods of Grant County, there wasn’t much time for golf.
Stephens died in July 2005 at age 81. One way his legacy lives on is through the First Tee program.
I remember well that spring day in 2001 when the guest list at the First Tee of Central Arkansas complex in south Little Rock — the former Rock Creek Golf Course — consisted of former President George H.W. Bush, Arnold Palmer, Byron Nelson and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem.
They had come to Arkansas to honor Stephens for his $5 million contribution that helped start The First Tee program nationally. The goal was to get more children involved in the sport and teach them life lessons along the way.
The First Tee of Central Arkansas became a model program for the country.
Jack Stephens was among the most successful business figures in Arkansas during the 20th century, joining his older brother Witt in earning Stephens Inc. a spot among the nation’s largest investment banks.
Jack Stephens also became an icon in the world of golf even though he didn’t begin playing the sport seriously until he was 36.
Because of his many business connections, Stephens was invited to join the Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia in 1962. I had the honor of working with him closely for a year after I moved back to Arkansas from Washington, D.C., in late 1989. I learned that he wasn’t one for social events, small talk or society climbers. That’s why the story his son Warren told when Jack Stephens was inducted into the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 2000 rang so true.
According to Warren, his father had walked out of a boring social gathering at Augusta. He was walking alone along the course when someone spoke to him. The man who spoke was sitting on the porch of a cabin overlooking the course. 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 at Augusta.
In 1991, he became only the fourth chairman in the history of the club. He served in that role until 1998.
After turning over the duties of chairman to Hootie Johnson, Stephens was named chairman emeritus.
Las Vegas-based writer Jack Sheehan said this about Jack Stephens: “Most golfers recognize 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.
“When Tiger shot 270 to win by 12 strokes, the word spread quickly that the members would try to Tiger-proof the course. Stephens didn’t seem in a particular rush. When someone asked what he’d do if Tiger were to shoot even lower scores in coming years, Jack replied, ‘I suppose we’ll anoint him.”’
At the time of the 2001 First Tee dedication ceremony in Little Rock, 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.”
Warren Stephens said on the day of the 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.
“It has been said that golf mirrors the virtues that society desires — integrity, honor, respect, rules, discipline. I think all of those traits can be applied when I talk about my father. And I think all of those traits are what we’re exposing young people to when we get them interested in golf.”
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 The First Tee, a role in which his father served when the program began in 1997.
First Tee has now reached more than 5 million children across the country.
George W. Bush took part in 2011 in the dedication of a garden area at the Little Rock complex to honor Warren Stephens and his wife Harriet for their continued support. Warren Stephens has hosted events at his internationally recognized Alotian Club west of Little Rock featuring Woods, Palmer, Crenshaw and Phil Mickelson among others. Proceeds from the events went to local charities, including The First Tee of Central Arkansas.
Finchem is the person who first approached Jack Stephens to talk about The First Tee.
“We initially went to Jack for advice on the startup,” Finchem said in an interview several years ago. “We weren’t asking for money. But Jack’s grant really got us started in a big way. … Jack Stephens was more important than any other individual in moving this program forward.”
Jack Stephens once told a reporter: “Golf is a great teacher in life. 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 this on a regular basis: “There are only two pleasures associated with money — making it and giving it away.”
His gift to The First Tee bears fruit each day just off South University Avenue in Little Rock.
Because of past Stephens family support, a number of Arkansans think that The First Tee of Central Arkansas doesn’t need their support. They think it’s only for rich kids. And they don’t realize they can play there as adults.
Here’s how writer Jim Harris put it in a column for Sporting Life Arkansas: “The game of golf at First Tee is not just about putting a little white ball into a little hole. I know how hard these people are working to make golf available to kids in families of all incomes. These folks not only teach golf, they pass along life lessons in the same way Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts do — developing citizens with strong character when they become adults.
“Partly because it was built so nicely by the Stephens’ largesse, some people have viewed First Tee as an elitist place for country club kids to play. And just the same, some of the well-to-do families have thought of First Tee as geared only to more impoverished families in the area. In truth, its charter directed the First Tee to focus first on impoverished families, minorities, children with disabilities, children of military families and girls. And it does that.
“To me, though, First Tee can be better described as a perfect place for the family, any family, no matter the financial status, where bonds between parent and child, or brother and sister, can be better formed. A full-size nine-hole course with easily some of the best holes anywhere in Arkansas offers a quick getaway from any age player at a ridiculously low greens fee. A nine-hole, par-three course presents a learning facility for the smallest of golfers as well as a superb practice area for the adult player to hone the short game.
“More than 2,000 children are participating in a range of First Tee offerings, from camps to daily classes. There’s still plenty of opportunity for golfers of all ages to play there. … It continues to be a secret to many of the city’s 25 to 85-year-old golfers.”
“The First Tee of Central Arkansas is a model for establishing public and private partnerships that contribute to the well-being of the community,” says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., the chief executive officer of The First Tee. “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. We’re proud of the tremendous growth of The First Tee of Central Arkansas.”
The program emphasizes nine core values — honesty, perseverance, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, judgment, responsibility and courtesy.
“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 First Tee of Central Arkansas. “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.”
The First Tee of Central Arkansas is trying to raise $150,000 to celebrate the fact that it has been around for 15 years now. For more information, go to www.thefirstteear.org or call (501) 562-4653.