TRUCKEE, Calif. – Wilson Furr walked off the 18th green at Martis Camp Club Monday afternoon to a rooting section. Waiting for him were a trio of young fans – Jackson Brown (10), Luke Brown (7) and Ethan Flynn (10) – who fist-bumped the 15-year-old, first-time U.S. Junior Amateur participant. Jackson and Luke are the sons of Furr’s caddie, Mike Brown, and Flynn is Jackson’s friend.
Furr, who had just carded a 1-under-par 71 in the first round of stroke-play qualifying, smiled and chatted with his fans before signing his scorecard.
When Furr, of Jackson, Miss., was about the same age as his young friends, he started a charity called Just Have A Ball, along with his then-7-year-old sister Hartwell. Furr had read that his home state of Mississippi – he’s from Jackson – was statistically the most obese in the country. Furr had always been an active child, playing with a football or basketball before discovering golf.
The precocious 9-year-old developed the idea of giving every elementary-school-age child a ball to stay active and healthy.
“We had no idea when they started [the charity] that it would not be some weekend project,” said Denise Furr, Wilson’s mother.
What’s even more remarkable is that Wilson and his now-12-year-old sister had the confidence to go door to door asking strangers to contribute any type of ball.
Still, it didn’t take long for the project to catch on. Soon donations were piling up. An area fruit company had a truck deliver the balls to Furr’s home and he and his friends utilized two electrical pumps to fill them up. The National Football League donated 1,000 footballs to the cause.
Soon, others caught on.
Luis Bruno, who was then the chef for the governor of Mississippi, and who had once weighed 400 pounds before he embarked on a program of diet and exercise, added financial support to the cause.
The Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping citizens improve their lifestyle, also caught wind of the project. The partnership assisted with grant-writing and manpower to get the message out. The project has since gone statewide and Wilson has spoken at more than 35 schools.
“The partnership has taken it to a different level,” said Denise Furr. “They print the balls with the name of the charity, ‘Just Have A Ball.’”
Solving childhood obesity isn’t something that will happen overnight, but Furr is happy to be making an impact.
“I think we’re getting better,” said Wilson of the project, which has raised $90,000 in the past six years, all of which has gone to purchase balls. “It’s not that quick of a process.”
Said Denise Furr: “I love being at a Wal-Mart and somebody saying, ‘You gave me a ball. I love my ball,’ or we ride around the neighborhood and we see different kids playing with them.”
Now that the partnership has taken control of the program, Wilson has become something of a front-man. He enjoys going to elementary schools and talking to youngsters when his schedule permits.
“Every school is really nice about it,” said Wilson, who has done countless television and newspaper interviews to promote the initiative. “It’s worked and it’s going to work.”
Furr has also shown he’s pretty good with a golf ball.
In May, he advanced to U.S. Open sectional qualifying at Colonial Country Club in Memphis, Tenn., where he shot 76-68 in a field full of PGA Tour and Web.com Tour players. He missed qualifying for the Open by five shots, but the experience was invaluable for Furr, who turned 15 on July 8.
He tried to absorb everything, from range habits to course management.
“I learned how to handle the situation,” said Furr, who plays out of the Country Club of Jackson under the tutelage of teaching pro John Howell. “Everything about it was a cool experience.”
Things got even better when he qualified for his first U.S. Junior last month, earning medalist honors by three strokes over his roommate this week, Ben Fuller, at the Country Club of Birmingham (Ala.), the site of this year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur.
A few weeks before he qualified, Furr got a call from the USGA that he had been chosen as one of eight golfers – four girls and four boys –to play in the third USA-China Youth Match, which will take place Aug. 2-3 at Nanshan International Golf Club in the Shandang Province of the People’s Republic of China.
Team members are all 16 or younger and each player, in addition to being a strong golfer, had to be a participant in Leadership Links, a jointly administered program of the USGA and the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) that promotes service and volunteerism among aspiring junior golfers.
Furr had to quickly procure a passport and visa for the trip. His parents are driving him to San Francisco – a 3½-hour drive from Martis Camp – on Sunday where he will meet the rest of the team, along with USGA officials John Bodenhamer and Matt Sawicki. It will be Furr’s first trip overseas.
Last year, the USGA hosted the event at CordeValle in San Martin, Calif. The competition will consist of four foursomes (alternate-shot) matches, four four-ball matches and eight singles matches over two days. The inaugural match took place in 2008 in conjunction with the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Of course, Furr still has plenty of golf to play at Martis Camp. He finished qualifying at 2-under 142, which easily earned him a spot in the match-play draw.
“This is 25 times better than I expected,” said Furr of the Junior Amateur. “It doesn’t get too much better than this. I’m having a great time.”
To Denise Furr, all of the golf accolades pale in comparison to what Wilson and Hartwell have done for Mississippi elementary-school students. They have made a positive impact on their community and state.
“I just beam every time I think about it,” said Denise Furr. “To me, it makes me proudest as a mom.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.