Those deeply entrenched in the golf world know the late, great Sandy Tatum as a former USGA president who worked tirelessly to bring championship golf to Northern California throughout his life. Tatum led a successful revitalization of a deteriorated Harding Park when he was well past age 70, restoring it as a San Francisco jewel that could serve the community while also hosting events like the 2020 PGA Championship in August.
Tatum’s work, however, did not end with high-profile tournaments. In golf he saw an ideal platform for fostering relationships and explaining core values for how humans should treat each other. In the last 20 years of his life, Tatum put in considerable time and effort into The First Tee of San Francisco, an organization dedicated to changing lives of underserved youth in one of the country’s most diverse areas, and it’s no surprise that the chapter has become as well-respected as Tatum himself.
Before his passing in June 2017, Tatum’s legacy of embracing mentorship went to a new level in the creation of Sandy’s Circle. It is a program that brings together young professionals in the Bay Area so they can be role models for First Tee students, especially those involved in the Future Foursomes group where the goal is to give kids every resource possible to go from fourth grade to entering the workforce after college. While it wasn’t Tatum himself who created the program – it was a community effort guided by the likes of First Tee executive director Dan Burke, accomplished mid-amateur John Sawin and a host of others – his spirit is prominent in its heartbeat.
At its core, Sandy’s Circle opens the window to see the many paths young lives can take.
“We want them exposed to as much as they can see on the other side of the tracks,” Burke said. “Sandy’s Circle is a perfect vehicle for those kids to see what life is like in the Transamerica building or the Salesforce Tower and what opportunity is there for them if they really stay focused on the path we’ve created for them via education and making good decisions and building character.”
Burke describes Sandy’s Circle as a well-oiled machine of mentorship that features a community of 60 strong. It began four years ago with a one-on-one style of programming, but it soon was decided that not every 9-year-old is ready to spend time with a 27-year-old investment banker and not every adult could handle the responsibility of mentoring one person. By creating different pods or silos where several young professionals met with kids who had similar interests, Sandy’s Circle got stronger.
“It’s one thing to talk about it but then to see kids go from being fifth graders to getting college scholarships and talking about how far they have come, you see how powerful it is when a kid can see a future for themselves.”
The bonds are strengthened through trips to facilities for Facebook or Goldman Sachs, as well as casual nights going to San Francisco Giants baseball games or bowling. And certainly not to be forgotten, golf is a lynchpin to getting everyone in the group together. It’s not necessarily about learning how to be the best golfer possible; it’s more about the core values of what golf teaches all of us, and how that applies to our daily lives.
Alexandra Wong, a former First Tee participant who played on the women’s golf team at Princeton, is now among the young professionals a part of Sandy’s Circle and embodies exactly why the program is so vital. With the influence of a diverse and encouraging community, Wong believes, there are many kids who can follow in her footsteps both professionally and personally.
“Having come full circle with the First Tee, it’s really reinforced the importance of making sure people of all different backgrounds are equipped to take on the world in the same way I have,” she said. “It’s one thing to talk about it but then to see kids go from being fifth graders to getting college scholarships and talking about how far they have come, you see how powerful it is when a kid can see a future for themselves.”
In Burke’s eyes, Wong being a critical component of the program is what drives his belief in it. The San Francisco Unified School District is 90 percent non-white, and Burke says having a successful program that reflects the city’s diversity is a foundational element.
“To see women like that who went through the First Tee as kids, went on to do all of these great things and are now coming back to mentor or volunteer, that all just reaffirms my belief in the program,” Burke said. “That’s the story, to me.”
Taryn Yee, also a First Tee alum who is a Sandy’s Circle mentor, describes the culture as organized and energetic, all while focusing on values like integrity, responsibility and sportsmanship.
“Everyone is pretty amazing, it’s just a great group of people,” Yee said. “We’ve done a lot of non-golf events over time, but we’ve also played a lot of golf and I get to play with some of the young girls. Seeing their excitement and the potential they have, it’s almost as if I am watching myself when I was younger. Those are always my favorite moments.”
Another of the young professionals, Chris Williams, explained how one relationship in particular has impacted his life greatly and symbolizes why Sandy’s Circle matters to him. Williams met Duke Janza in 2016 when Janza was just getting into high school; now Williams is helping him apply for college, setting up meetings with school counselors and going through the pros and cons of what different universities offer.
“We’ve built a relationship where we are not just talking about getting ready for college but we’re talking about social stuff and other things in life,” said Williams, a 2013 graduate of Brown University who now works in entrepreneurial and small business investing. “I’m a nudge from another person who isn’t his mom or dad. That’s valuable for kids, even if they have great support from their parents.”
While a lot of the emphasis is on the growth of kids who are preparing to go through high school and college, Williams makes the point that the adults get just as much out of it as the kids.
“I moved to San Francisco not knowing a ton of people, a lot of whom are pretty serious golfers,” Williams said. “Now I have a nucleus of friends that has emerged and five years later, we are still playing golf and going on weekend trips together and are in each other’s weddings.”
Everyone who talks about Sandy’s Circle agrees that the model is something that can be used in other parts of the country. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s the value of feeling connected to each other and providing a safe space to grow as people.
No other game has quite the same power. Just as Tatum hoped, Sandy’s Circle harnesses it to make the most profound difference.