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Joe Louis Barrow Jr. Reflects on 18 Years as CEO of The First Tee

After 18 fruitful years as Chief Executive Officer (or Chief Evangelist) of The First Tee, Joe Louis Barrow Jr. officially stepped down at the start of the New Year.

Barrow, the chairman of the NGF’s Board of Directors, recently used some of his newly-found free time to pen his thoughts for The Q. He reflects on a tenure in which he helped grow the youth development organization from about 100 golf facilities in 2,000 to one now partnering with more than 1,200 golf courses, 10,000 schools and 1,000 after-school locations.

For Barrow and the young people he’s reached through the years, The First Tee has always been more than a game.



“It’s been a privilege leading The First Tee for 18 years and I’m very proud of the success the organization has had during that time. I’m especially proud of the contributions of the home office and chapters to fulfill our mission and strategic goals. It’s their acceptance and buy-in of the vision that has allowed the organization to grow to reach more than 5 million young people annually. Those 5 million young people are being exposed to the game of golf, but also the values associated with the game. 

I believe golf is in a better place today than ever before. I believe The First Tee is playing an important role in the current and future state of golf. Prior to The First Tee, opportunities were limited to play golf if your parent, grand-parent or close relative didn’t play. Access to the game was more limited in general. Today, more than 10,000 elementary schools have partnered with The First Tee to introduce students to golf during physical education classes. The First Tee has provided accessibility.

The biggest challenge for golf moving forward is for the industry to focus on a societal issue: leisure time. The game will need to continue to adapt so that there are experiences available for the player that only has two hours to commit to leisure activities. The industry has started to address this through 9-hole rounds and experiences like Topgolf, but this should continue to be an area of focus.

The evolution of The First Tee has been something I’m particularly proud of during the last 18 years.

When I started, our focus was on green grass facilities and accessibility. We now have programs at more than 1,200 golf courses, but even more, the organization has expanded to offer programs at more than 10,000 schools and more than 1,000 youth serving organizations—we are meeting young people where they spend time.

Not only have we expanded our footprint and made the game more accessible, but we added the life skills and Nine Core Values to the program. While there are values inherent to the game of golf, it takes intentionality to seamlessly deliver them as part of the golf instruction.

The First Tee will continue to be a youth development organization having significant impact on young people in this country. It’s critical for our society that our young people learn and embody values like honesty, respect and judgment and that they take on the responsibility of giving back to their community.

We know from our teen and alumni research that our alumni engage in community service at higher rates than the general population. Ninety-one percent of The First Tee alumni say they engaged in community service while in the program and 72 percent of alumni still do. That’s compared to 22 percent of all youth aged 16-22 who engage in community service. Giving back is important to the success of our society, communities, and families.

While The First Tee intentionally highlights core values and skills that will help young people be successful in their lives, it’s all done through the game of golf. The game is what makes the program fun and attracts the attention of youth. Ninety percent of alumni report they are life-long golfers and The First Tee will continue to develop golfers.

Golf is appealing to young people and attracting great new talent. Whether it’s at the amateur level or the professional level, the game of golf has the ability to change lives. The future is full of potential.

In looking to the future, I am pleased that Keith (Dawkins) accepted the opportunity to lead The First Tee, and I believe he will be an exceptional leader for the organization.

My advice to Keith has been to understand and appreciate the societal needs and those of the golf industry, and blend the two. Without addressing societal needs, it is just developing golfers. And at The First Tee, golf is more than a game.

As for myself, I will remain involved in the game, because I love the game. And I love what the game can do for a person.”


Erik Matuszewski
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