By Andrea E. McHugh Newport Life Magazine July/August 2023
Dave Hansen photos
From the courts to the course, local youths are serving up fresh talent — and a trio of organizations are there to cheer them on
When it comes to sports, Newport has long been a city of firsts. Home of the first U.S. Open tournaments in both tennis and golf in 1881 and 1895 respectively, the first International Polo Match in 1886 — and even the first ESPN X-Games in 1995, Newport’s sporting past is only rivaled by its present, as evidenced by The Ocean Race’s recent stopover alongside other prestigious regattas, the Hall of Fame Open hosted at the International Tennis Hall of Fame, the Newport International Polo Series, and the upcoming 2024 U.S. Senior Open.
For more than a century, top athletes from far and wide have descended on the City-by-the-Sea to compete for shiny cups and towering trophies, but what about developing talent in our own backyard— and making these sports accessible, affordable and equitable?
Three programs are working in our community to open doors, bridge gaps, and introduce a world of possibilities — on and off the court and course.
Growing up on a farm in southeastern Virginia, Orlando Peace was just about the least likely person to fall in love with the game of golf, but he did. Peace became so passionate about the sport that he put everything on the line to give kids from all socioeconomic backgrounds the opportunity to share that same passion.
The thing is, he had to create that opportunity from scratch.
“Every time I went to a golf course in this area, I was like, ‘Man, you know what? I don’t see any kids that look like me. I don’t see too many guys out here that look like me.’ … So I said ‘Okay, let’s change it.’,” recalls Peace.
At the time, he was working at a local youth organization and had pitched the idea of a golf program without success. Unwilling to give up, he tried once more — this time ready to sacrifice his salaried job with benefits — with a prepared resignation letter in his pocket to demonstrate his seriousness.
Again, the idea was rejected, and that’s when Steve Heath, executive director of FabNewport, hired Peace and gave him the greenlight to build a youth golf program from the ground up.
FabNewport is a nonprofit makerspace and STEAM learning studio that offers a range of year-round programs in school, after school and during the summer to middle and high school students. The organization’s location at the Florence Gray Center in the Newport Heights neighborhood was exactly where Peace wanted to begin his outreach.
“Because here in this side of town, you know, a lot of kids don’t go to college. A lot of kids struggle in high school. A lot of absenteeism in the school,” says Peace, adding he lives just three minutes from the center.
FabGolf launched in 2021 and at first, it was a hard sell. “Kids would say, ‘Oh come on, man. Don’t nobody play this but old white guys,’” Peace recalls. “And I was like, ‘how do you know you’re not going to be good at it?’”
Peace was determined to show students that the game is just one small part of the golf experience. “I didn’t want to start this program to find the next Tiger Woods,” he says. “I wanted to start this program to be able to get kids to look at golf as an $84 billion-a-year industry. ‘What part of that $84 billion do you want?’”
Marketing, media, operations, course groundskeeping, hospitality, sponsorship relations, event management, accounting, membership operations, caddying, golf club fitting and design — Peace shows his players that golf provides opportunities far beyond competition. “You get to meet different people; people where they could open your eyes up to different opportunities,” he says.
He also wanted the students to bridge the academic piece of the game, connecting what they learn in school to what they experience on the fairway. “It’s a big classroom. That’s what the golf course is… where you learn about yourself, you learn about life, math, science, English, the weather — you name it.”
FabGolf’s boys and girls mostly play at Green Valley Country Club in Portsmouth, but have played, attended clinics and competed against golf teams on courses throughout the area including Wanumetonomy Country Club, also in Portsmouth, and Button Hole in Providence.
More often than not, their competition has far greater experience on the greens, but Peace sees that as a life lesson.
“We compete against kids that grew up in the sport because grandfather is a member at this or that country club,” he says. “…[but] I give them the expectation right away. This is how life works. People will put their expectations on you because of your address. Because of your zip code. And you know how to stop the chatter? I say, ‘You keep showing up. You keep raising your hand at school. You sit in the front — you don’t sit in the back.’”
And the team, composed of students of all backgrounds and ethnicities, including Hispanic, Asian, African, Portuguese and Brazilian, are like family, he says. Recently, a 12-year-old girl hit a putt on the 17th hole of Green Valley.
“Downhill, playing against boys, going downhill and the next thing you know, she nailed it. Every kid who was out there went bananas. The whole place erupted like she won the Masters!,” Peace says.
Two years after its inception, FabGolf no longer has a recruitment problem. Nearly 70 students have participated in the program and Peace’s enthusiasm is equally palpable and infectious.
“It took me a lot to get to this spot. I had different jobs in life, and it’s work, but this is not work to me, Peace says. “Yes, it is my job; it is my profession, and I have to come to work, but this is the best job you could ever have,” he says. “This is it for me, because of moments like that.”