First Tee golfer has ‘walk to remember’ with Rory McIlroy
Sixteen-year-old Grace Vaughan of Chesnee, South Carolina, got the thrill of a golfer’s life when she played in the Wells Fargo Championship Pro-Am May 13 with popular PGA TOUR star Rory McIlroy.
After the PGA TOUR’s Rory McIlroy belted his drive down Quail Hollow Club’s par-4 first hole, all eyes turned to Grace Vaughan. With a slight tip of the hat, she smiled, and ― after the starter introduced her ― took her position behind an orange golf ball (she likes bright colors because they’re easier to find).
Then Grace, 16, took a few practice swings and — with a “thwack”— sent her drive down the left side of the hole.
“That’s my Gracie!” someone yelled from the crowd.
But that drive was just for show.
She then moved to the women’s tee and hit her real drive — down the left side of the fairway and past Rory’s shot. Three shots later, she rolled in a five-foot putt for what would be her first of three pars on May 13 at the Wells Fargo Championship Pro-Am.*
Grace’s experience came courtesy of being named the 2015 grand prize winner of the Succeeding TogetherSM essay contest. Along with golf clinics for kids at PGA TOUR venues, the contest is part of Wells Fargo’s support of The First Tee® ― the World Golf Foundation’s nonprofit that strives to build character in youths through golf at nearly 200 local chapters across the U.S.
More than 150 teenage participants of The First Tee submitted essays in the 2015 contest.
Grace, who lives in Chesnee, South Carolina, began playing golf in 2012 when she joined The First Tee of Spartanburg and Cherokee Counties. Since her school in Chesnee doesn’t have a girl’s golf team, she plays for Boiling Springs High School.
William Deck, the golf pro and owner of the team’s home course, Meadowbrook Golf Club in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, served as her Wells Fargo Championship Pro-Am caddie.
A gallery of about 20 people, including her parents, brother, other family, and friends from across the Carolinas followed Grace from hole to hole.
Many in the gallery — along with The First Tee’s Jennifer Weiler and Wells Fargo’s Matt Wadley — used smartphones to share highlights during her round on social media. They used the #teamgrace hashtag ― content shared instantly on the screens at the new #WellsFargoChamp Golf Experience.
A first for the PGA TOUR, the digital hub in the Green Mile Village between the 16th and 18th fairways showcases live golf action and real-time social media content from the tournament.
“I’ve always been a fan of Rory and knew I would pick him to play with if I won the contest,” Grace says. “While we were on the course, he gave me a lot of tips about how to read the greens and navigate around the course, and was so nice.”
The two met for the first time on the practice tee about 45 minutes before their scheduled 2:03 p.m. start time on Quail Hollow’s first hole.
“How are you?” the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer asked Grace as he shook her hand. “I’m looking forward to today. We’re going to have a good time, and I’m sure we’re going to have a lot of fun. See you on the next tee.”
Grace is the second essay contest winner Rory has played with at the tournament. Alejandra Ayala of Atlanta, the 2014 winner, picked him for her Wells Fargo Championship Pro-Am round at Quail Hollow Club, too.
“It’s nice to be popular, I guess,” Rory said. “I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can be a role model and get to play with kids like Grace and those from The First Tee. As long as they have a good time playing, that’s the most important thing.
“I know I had a really good time playing with Grace. She did really well out there, and I tried to make her feel as comfortable as possible. I wish all of our rounds were like that.”
Grace exhibited perseverance, her favorite of The First Tee’s nine core values, often during her round ― whether it was making the green from greenside bunkers, punching back into play the few times she missed the fairway and found trouble, or coping with the pressure of so many people following her group (and often recording every shot).
She learned early how to overcome life’s rough times and deal with adversity.
Diagnosed at age 3 with hereditary spherocytosis, a genetic condition that affects the red blood cells, Grace eventually had her spleen and gallbladder removed as treatment for the severe anemia and other problems the disorder can cause.
A summer stay at Camp Courage (run by the Children’s Hospital of Greenville) at age 7 helped her realize she wasn’t alone. She drew strength from knowing other children also experienced bullying because of misunderstanding about their illnesses.
“That summer changed my life,” Grace says. “Since then, I’ve wanted to be a pediatric hematologist and hope to major in some field in health or medicine in college. The counselors I met are part of the go-to team I regularly text and rely on for support. I also try to help others as a member of their go-to team.”
Grace says it was a dream come true to go inside the ropes and experience firsthand a tournament she and her grandfather, Phil Elliott, have watched on television for years.
“My grandfather introduced me to the game of golf and once played with Sam Snead when he came to Spartanburg,” Grace says. “When I’m visiting them on a Sunday, after church my grandfather and I watch golf on TV.”
At Wednesday’s pro-am, this time Grace was part of the action ― hitting shots with the gallery watching her and people yelling out: “Nice playing, Gracie, keep it up,” “Great shot, Grace,” and other encouragement, as well as asking her to autograph golf hats, towels, and other items.
“My round with Rory was an amazing experience because it’s weird being inside the ropes and having people cheer for your good shots,” Grace said afterward. “My favorite shot of the day was when I hit it over the water and parred the par-3 17th hole as the gallery clapped and Rory congratulated me.
“The entire experience was definitely a walk to remember.”
*The others came on the par-4 9th hole where Grace’s third shot was so close to the hole that Rory gave her a ‘gimme’ and called it a par, flipping her the ball. The last came at the par-3 17th hole where her approach shot avoided the water hazard and sailed about 25 feet past the cup. From there, she coaxed a putt to a few feet and, after a Rory tip on the line, stroked the putt in for par.