‘They look like America’: Diverse backgrounds and big dreams converge at Pebble Beach

September 25, 2017

PEBBLE BEACH, Cal.—The gilded fairways of a professional golf tournament are an unlikely place for a political statement. On Sunday, the Champions tour visited America’s most famous course, and amidst Pebble Beach’s beauty it was easy to forget the larger culture wars being fought that same day on other playing fields. A foreign-born tennis player, Nick Kyrgios, took a knee in solidarity with NFL players protesting racial injustice, but no golfers risked a grass-stain on their perfectly pressed trousers.

This was hardly surprising; on issues of race (and gender equality) golf has traditionally been decades behind the rest of American society. “I’m middle-of-the-road politically,” Paul Goydos said on Sunday, after finishing 15th at the Pure Insurance Championship, “which makes me a pinko Communist out here.”

Yet the tournament at hand still offered a powerful vision of what America can be. It featured 82 kids representing First Tee chapters from across the country, and they were a rainbow of hyphenated Americans: African-, Hispanic-, and Asian-, and more. The kids were far more diverse than the leathery, silver-haired pros they played alongside. The juniors were selected through extreme vetting of their upstanding citizenship and golfing ability. Many have inspirational stories of overcoming hardships, and up-from-their-bootstraps success stories abound. In these rancorous times, the fine manners and boundless futures of these kids were a needed reminder that the content of one’s character still matters.

But some of the kids at Pebble Beach played with heavy hearts because their President’s recent verbal attacks on fellow athletes felt uncomfortably familiar. Before Donald Trump targeted NFL players for their peaceful protests he had put in his crosshairs a much more vulnerable population: the first-generation children of immigrants who came to the U.S. seeking a better life.

Jose Calderon, 17, is one such kid. He’s a dreamer: new wedges, a college scholarship, a pro career…all of these things were on his mind at Pebble. Of all the juniors in the field Jose had the shortest commute and longest journey. He hails from east of Eden: the dusty farming town of Salinas, which is 15 miles and a world away from Pebble Beach. Jose was representing The First Tee of Monterey County, a facility that is located in a de facto demilitarized zone between Norteño and Sureño territories; these warring gangs annually give Salinas one of the highest per-capita murder rates in the state.

Jose easily could have fallen into this maw but his elementary school, Virginia Rocca Barton, is adjacent to the TFTMC’s 2nd hole. This First Tee chapter has aggressively taken a role in its community through a partnership with East Salinas’s Alisal Union School District. Every morning buses paid for by The First Tee stop in front of one of 11 elementary schools to bring fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to the 63-acre campus for two hours of golf instruction and to inculcate the nine “core values” that are the backbone of The First Tee’s mission.

After school, the buses ferry up to 100 kids from across the district back to The First Tee. A free healthy snack awaits, as do tutors to help with homework in the gleaming clubhouse, which has a black marble atrium and 15 shiny computers. There is also organized golf instruction for players of varying experience, but that is optional. “Whether or not a kid touches a golf club is not that important to us,” says Barry Phillips, a member of the TFTMC’s board of directors. “The point is to give them a safe, nurturing environment. But even those who say they’re not interested in golf, once they see the other kids having so much fun, they’re drawn to it.”

That’s what happened to Jose, though it wasn’t easy to convince his parents that golf should be part of his life. “I was hesitant because I didn’t know anything about it,” Jose’s father, Alberto, said through an interpreter. “I thought it was a rich man’s game.”

Jose’s mother Josefina works six days a week in the strawberry fields outside of Salinas. (Alberto used to as well but he now works Monday through Saturday in construction.) Picking strawberries is back-breaking work, and the hard lives of the laborers would have been rich source material for Salinas’s favorite son, John Steinbeck. In the last year – amidst Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric toward undocumented immigrants — many farmers have been unable to find enough workers, so crops have spoiled, or fields left fallow. Jose spends his summers in the fields alongside his mom, and it was there that his phone buzzed with word that he would be playing in the Pure Insurance Championship. He wanted to shout with joy but, he says,”No one who I was working with would understand. They don’t really know what Pebble Beach is.”

If anyone could appreciate how far Jose has come it was his pro partner Esteban Toledo, who grew up hand-to-mouth in Mexicali. “I’m so proud of that kid,” Toledo said, his eyes glistening. “It’s pretty incredible to come from such humble circumstances and make it here at such a young age. But you can see the maturity in him, which comes from a hard life.” Jose’s game was impressive, too. Playing Pebble’s par-5 6th hole during the first round, he smashed a hybrid from 225 yards out to within eight feet of the cup and then buried the eagle putt. “Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, none of them have ever hit a better shot than that, I promise you,” said Toledo.

Did playing Pebble feel like the end of a journey for Jose?

“No, I feel like I’m just now at the beginning,” he said. “I never knew how much I didn’t know, if that makes sense.”

During a practice round with Nick Faldo, he was tutored by the three-time British Open champ on how to lower his ball flight. The professional caddies in his group offered precious insight on how to think your way around the golf course. Jose arrived at the tournament with a hand-me-down driver that he hit a modest 260 yards despite his ferocious swing. Toledo detected that the face sounded “dead” and got Jose custom-fit for a new driver by TaylorMade technicians. Just like that, he picked up 40 or 50 yards off the tee.

Jose’s wedges were so old the grooves were basically gone. He was given some demos for the week and suddenly discovered the joys of backspin: “My chips would land and stop dead and it was like, ‘What in the world is going on here?'” By week’s end, Toledo made a vow: “He’s never going to have to worry about his equipment again. I’ll make sure of that.”

Jose’s sweet smile and gentle demeanor draw people to him, but it is hard-nosed determination that has allowed him to make his way in this land of opportunity. Diligent work with the tutors at the First Tee led to the excellent grades that earned him a scholarship to Palma High, a private Catholic school in middle-class south Salinas. Jose is on the wrestling team and plays nose guard for the powerhouse football team. His dream is to play golf at Oregon and then reach the PGA Tour. “I wasn’t sure a kid like me could go that far but this week has made it more real,” he says.

Last week Jose was too busy having fun – including flirting with a pretty blonde from a First Tee chapter on the East Coast – to worry about what Trump was tweeting, but it was a talking point for many others at the tournament. “In my personal opinion, this is beneath the office of the presidency,” Goydos said. “I can’t believe he’s accomplished so much in his presidency that this is the only issue left for him.”

When Goydos was trying to make it on the mini tours he supplemented his income by being a substitute teacher in some rough parts of Long Beach, and that experience left him with an incurable empathy for those with different backgrounds. “Who am I to say what Colin Kaepernick should or shouldn’t do?” asks Goydos. “I don’t know what his struggles have been. I don’t know how he’s been treated because of the color of his skin. My dad is a veteran, so I will always stand to honor the national anthem. But that’s my life, my experience. I do know the principles he fought for: freedom of speech and the right to protest. It would be nice if our current President had a little more respect for these ideals.”

“The bottom line is, I think we should be very careful about telling people what they’re saying or what they believe in is wrong, because we haven’t been down their path. You gotta walk in another person’s shoes to understand what they’ve been through.”

Goydos uttered these words in the shadow of the stately Lodge at Pebble Beach. At that moment, Jose was standing in the shade by 18 th green, waiting to see Bernhard Langer complete his victory. Jose’s parents were there, too, speaking quietly in Spanish. They didn’t try to hide their awe at the surroundings. In this new age of athlete activism, it is doubtful many golfers will overtly join the cause. But for one young competitor at Pebble Beach, his mere presence was a political statement.

“It’s diversity that makes this country great,” Goydos said. “Diversity of people and diversity of ideas and beliefs. You don’t have to look any farther than the kids at this tournament: they look like America. That’s worth celebrating.”