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Lopez tees off with First Tee

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

ALBANY -- Emmanuel Carter thought about it for a minute and then said: "I know who George Lopez is and I know who Jennifer Lopez is, but I didn't know who Nancy Lopez was.''

Now he does.

Emmanuel is what Saturday morning at The First Tee of Albany was all about. He's 11, an aspiring golfer who showed up along with 61 other kids for the Nancy Lopez & Friends Junior Golf Clinic.

The event, now in its fifth year, is what Lopez, a longtime Albany resident, is about, too. It's about coming back home to her adopted hometown, coming all the way back to grass roots and giving back -- touching the lives of kids and maybe, just maybe, touching their future.

"I think you can use golf to teach a lot of things in life, especially these days,'' Lopez said. "You look at these kids, and you want them to have a great life. They look up to you. You're a role model, and you should give back. I love the kids.''

It shows.

It's not just the golf lessons, it's the way Lopez interacts with the youngsters. This isn't Hollywood celebrity posed shots. This is genuine stuff, honest, down-to-earth caring, the kind that all too often gets lost in a sports world full the wrong kind of headlines.

This is Lopez being Lopez, just par for her extraordinary personal course.

You could see it Saturday, the way she embraced the moment, stopping to get to know the kids, watching them smile as she took one picture after another, or swapping e-mails with a teenage girl and asking her about her golf game.

Kids know. They know when you care and when it's real. They always know.

"She is so nice,'' said Lily Payne, a 13-year-old from Savannah who has been coming to the clinic for three years. "I come every year. My grandmother (Rita Payne) lives here. I think it helps you in golf, and also helps you in life, learning courtesy and etiquette and rules. I think it's great that (Lopez) does this every year. It's nice of her to do this, and I'm kind of jealous. You want to be in her shoes.''

Is there a better message from a role model than that?

That's Lopez, a golf legend who made a name for herself along a road that led her to the LPGA Hall of Fame, a road that started in her hometown and brings her back here for what should just be called the Nancy Lopez Weekend that includes her Hospice charity golf tournament and clinic the kids never forget.

"This is my first time playing golf. The only time I ever played golf was at the Fun Park (miniature golf course),'' said Emmanuel, a sixth-grader at Robert Cross Middle School in Albany. "But I want to play golf. It's something I've always wanted to do. I think it's pretty cool that (Lopez) does this. Really, pretty cool.''

It's not just Lopez, who was busy giving credit Saturday to everyone else from Burkett Carver, the executive director of The First Tee, to her friend LPGA pro golfer Kim Bauer, who has helped with every clinic, to the Darton golf team and coach Dale Dover who come out and help every year.

"It was Burkett's idea to do this,'' Lopez said. "I thought it was a great idea. The best part? I think just seeing the really young kids who really don't get (golf) yet. Seeing them have a good time. That's what we want to do, introduce them to the game. Then you see the older ones, and they are wide-eyed to see Kim and see me, and the guys from Darton. They're great to come out here every year.'

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Lopez always has a talk with the kids in a big group, telling them her story of growing up and overcoming obstacles to become a pro golfer. But it's her personal touch that they remember the most.

"She's great with the kids,'' said Bauer, who -- like Lopez -- brings her heart to the clinic as well as her putter. "You never know. Some of the littlest things you might say to them might make an impact and make a difference in their lives down the road.''

Funny how things stay with you.

"I will never forget when I was 15,'' Lopez said. "I went to a PGA event, and I'm not going to mention the name but I was waiting afterward to get an autograph (from a famous golfer). I was third in line and when the golfer came out he told the first guy in line: "I don't have time for this.' I was shocked. He really left an impression on me the wrong way. I thought to myself, if I ever turn professional I will never do that.''

And she doesn't.

"I've seen here stand there and sign one autograph after another,'' Bauer said. "She never says no. She always takes time to give back.''

Lopez wasn't just giving back on Saturday, she was loving every minute of it.

Of course, there is the golf -- a tool First Tee uses to change lives and help youngsters. It's what the organization stands for, and the epitome of this annual event.

"What do you call that again?'' asked 7-year-old Turner Van Meter as he pointed to an area where young golfers were chipping onto the green. "Yeah, chipping. I've played golf, but I had never done the chipping before. I know how to putt. But I didn't know about the chipping.''

Even though he thinks he has mastered putting, Turner said he would be back next year.

"She's a really good golfer,'' said Turner of Lopez. "This is really neat. I'm glad they do this.''

The kids range from kindergarten to seniors in high school, and Baconton Charter School's golf coach Sam Cornwell brought 26 kids of all ages from Mitchell County to the clinic.

"This is something that can be a lifetime sport, something they can do forever,'' Cornwell said. "Just to come out here in a real fun environment is great for the kids.''

Then he looked over to where the smallest golfers at the clinic where hitting some balls and added with a smile: "They're just hitting balls, hitting balls and hitting balls. And then they get to have pizza and ice cream.''

Then there is the Lopez effect.

"How many times do kids get to be with a Hall of Famer?' Cornwell asked aloud. "She's such a sweetheart, such a great lady.''

One of the Baconton kids was 15-year-old Prentiss Autry, a novice of novices.

"Today is my first day to play golf,'' she said. "I'm going to keep playing. I'm definitely going to play. I think it's really great that (Lopez) -- a really famous golfer -- is here for this. I think it's great that she comes back here to do this. She's so famous, and she still cares about where she came from.''

Lopez cares. That's the message every kid learned.

"The kids have a good time,'' Lopez said. "A lot of them come back year after year.''

Just like Lopez.