By William Fowler
Ryan Wilson is the new CEO of the First Tee – Central Carolina, the organization where he started his professional career in 2011.
Wilson, who played golf at High Point Central High and High Point University, worked with the local First Tee organization from 2011 until 2015.
“I’m so thankful to be stepping into this role, with a strong foundation underneath us. The chapter has been doing great work in the Triad for 15 years, we have the full support of the Wyndham Championship, and a wonderful board of directors,” said Wilson.
Wilson later worked for the national First Tee organization in the Jacksonville, Florida, area before taking over as the senior director of operations for a foundation headed by PGA Tour player Cameron Champ.
Wilson was recruited by outgoing CEO Mike Barber and Piedmont Triad Charitable Foundation CEO Mark Brazil in December to take over the position. Through the Charitable Foundation, proceeds from the PGA Tour’s Wyndham Championship have been donated to the chapter.
Barber, an attorney and former Greensboro city councilman, had served as CEO since 2011. Barber said he had “simply gone out to pasture,” and was doing some legal and consulting work.
At the local First Tee, Wilson said he inherited a strong organization with a budget of around $500,000, six paid staff members and about 1,000 participating youth.
“We’re in a good place financially and that’s all because of Mike,” said Wilson, who worked with Barber for four years. “It’s a lot easier for me to take over with healthy resources and great leadership.”
Around the time he was finishing his studies after transferring from HPU to UNC Charlotte, Wilson said he became interested in the First Tee when watching a feature on the organization on Golf Channel. On the show, he saw four black junior golfers who helped by the First Tee, earned college scholarships.
“I fell in love with First Tee over 12 years ago, because we were using the game to provide opportunities to youth who may never otherwise have them; opportunities to learn a life-long sport, opportunities for adult mentorship, opportunities for college and career readies, and more.”
Wilson took a job as volunteer during the summer. By September, he had a paid position as a program director.
Headquartered at Gillespie Golf Course in Greensboro, Central Carolina lists 12 locations, eight in the Triad — Gillespie, Greensboro National, The Cardinal, Jamestown Park, Oak Hollow, The Valley, Learning Center at Winston Lake and Tanglewood Par-3. Other sites are Country Club of Salisbury, Biltmore Forest Country Club in Asheville, The Cliffs at Walnut Cove in Arden and Fireside Golf Range in Hendersonville.
The two largest facilities are at Gillespie and Winston Lake, which both have regulation courses, par-3 courses, driving ranges and practice areas.
“We do great work across the Triad but we’re most proud of the impact we’ve had in East Winston-Salem and East Greensboro since starting our chapter,” said Wilson. “We have some incredible facilities that rival any other First Tee chapter in the country and we’re going to focus even more on these sites going forward.
First Tee sponsors eight-week programs at its sites in the spring and summer. Wilson said Central Carolina plans to add a somewhat shorter program late in the year. The organization also runs some tournaments throughout the region.
There is a standard cost for an eight-week program, though scholarships are available as well. The spring program starts March 20, 2023.
“We’ve never turned a kid away because he couldn’t afford it,” said Wilson.
At High Point Central, Wilson played with Drew Weaver, who went on to win the 2007 British Amateur and now plays on the Korn Ferry Tour.
In his position with the Cameron Champ Foundation, Wilson handles much of the fundraising in addition to other duties. The Champ Foundation focused on introducing youth in “underserved and underrepresented communities” to the golf, especially in Sacramento, his hometown.
Though Wilson is familiar with the operations First Tee – Central Carolina, that doesn’t mean there won’t be some changes. In addition, the First Tee’s national office decided to transition away from grouping by skill level and now beginners and non-beginners will be grouped together by age.
“The change will allow us to teach life and golf skills more effectively while making sure that kids are having even more fun with kids their age,” Wilson said. “We’ve also made some updates to our golf and education curriculum. Participants in the programs will still be learning golf and life skills, but the lessons and languages will be fresh and relevant.”