But there were checks. Many of them, some presented as cameras clicked and rolled. They were accepted with perhaps more joy than a trophy-hoisting tournament winner could muster.
This was the scene at The First Tee's third annual national meeting, which covered most of three days at the St. Johns County Convention Center here, next to the World Golf Village. The conference kicked off a week of meetings and festivities that culminated in the induction of eight of the game's greats into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
The First Tee, you'll recall, came to public attention Nov. 13, 1997, when PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem and former president George Bush stopped in Houston, Detroit and New York in one day. Their barnstorming announced with fanfare a program designed to offer golf opportunities to kids who might not otherwise have them: minorities, kids in the inner cities, anyone who wanted to play but didn't have access to the game.
Even though it was only three years ago, November 1997 was a different time. The golf world was still trying to get its wind back after the breathtaking debut of Tiger Woods and his performance in the Masters that year. Woods, the press, and golf leaders from the grass roots to the glass office buildings, were making noise about golf's next generation. Who would provide the next wave of customers? More important, who would offer a hand to golf's disenfranchised? Who would make sure that no one ever again suffered the fate of Charlie Sifford and Althea Gibson?
The PGA Tour's response, with the help of the allied golf associations, was The First Tee. Facilities would be built, it was promised, that would offer affordable golf to minority and disadvantaged kids in a welcoming atmosphere.
As journalists, many of my colleagues and I cautiously applauded the idea. But all we saw at that point was an idea, and the sad fact in this world is that most such programs never leave the launching pad of good intentions.
But so far, this program appears to walk the walk.
More than 130 First Tee facilities are now under development in the United States and Canada, beating by a mile the goal of having 100 on the charts by the end of 2000. A popular summer program at Kansas State University has met with rave reviews from First Tee participants. Corporate supplier/sponsors, 24 of them, have kicked in to help. And a new $50 million capital campaign chaired by Jack Nicklaus and Juli Inskter got started right - with a million of the Bear's own bucks.
One of the smartest things The First Tee did was to hire Joe Louis Barrow, Jr. as its national director. Barrow, the son of boxing great Joe Louis, has never traveled on his father's illustrious name, but has insisted on making his own way. He has succeeded by any measure. The contacts he built during his time in the golf bag manufacturing business have served him well; he may now be the best consensus builder in the game.
And he is ambitious. He and his First Tee cohorts have an international vision. But before jumping overseas, The First Tee wants to affect the lives of youth off the golf course. Hence, the new Life Skills program, in which First Tee golfers will be encouraged to use the skills they learn on course - honesty, patience, industry, goal-setting, determination - to succeed on life's other paths.
It's a tempting vision, the idea that golf could indeed be a pathway to character. There are even examples among current First Tee participants. But like any journalist, I'm skeptical about anything that seems the slightest bit utopian. Perhaps it's all just wishful talk, this idea that a whole generation of First Tee golfers could use the game to become upstanding young men and women.
But judging by what The First Tee has accomplished already, I wouldn't bet against it. It will be enlightening to see what happens.