Danny Priester, We Salute You

Here's one very good reason why the USGA proudly supports junior golf programs around the country: Danny Priester, of Fairway Outreach of Columbia, S.C.
February 18, 2009

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

The rocky brown ravines of our nation's war zones are far removed from the gentle green fairways of Junior Golf Land in Columbia, S.C. For that matter, so are the pine-studded proving grounds of Fort Benning in Columbus, Ga.

Danny Priester, Jr., is headed for war.

Danny Priester's mother, Valerie, said golf suited him because he was always an independent person. (Russell Kirk/USGA)

A recent graduate of West Point and newly minted second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Priester, 24, now hoists an M-4 rifle instead of a golf bag. Boots, helmet and digital camouflage replaced the standard issue of another time -- softspikes, golf visor and shirt.

Priester darts through the pines, shouting orders instead of voicing the soft intonations of the most civilized game on earth.

The training is intense. But Priester knows about tough spots, hard choices and doing his duty. He remembers the troubled turn his life took growing up in Columbia. He remembers taking on jobs to help his mother after his father died. Cleaning up the University of South Carolina's football stadium after games in the fall. Ringing a bell for the Salvation Army during the Christmas season. Working on community beautification projects during summer.

A crucial part of Second Lieutenant Danny Priester's route out of a challenging childhood in South Carolina, to the study halls and parade grounds of West Point, to leading his troops overseas can be explained in one word: Golf. Indeed, for those who want to put a face on the long-awaited impact of "the Tiger Boom" unleashed at Augusta National Golf Club in 1997, look no further than Danny Priester.

"When Tiger won The Masters, that's what turned the bulb on," says Priester, who was 13 at the time. "How fun he made it look. I wanted to be a part of that. I asked my great uncles, Alvin Walker and Charles Samuel, and my granddaddy, Henry Walker, who play golf a lot, about getting me to the driving range. Then a friend got me into the Fairway Outreach program. From there it was a go."

Fairway Outreach is a well-regarded youth program that brings golf, faith and life skills together for young people in the Columbia, S.C., area. It's supported by a range of local and national groups, including the USGA, which gave the South Carolina Junior Golf Association (SCJGA) $100,000 to build a nine-hole course for Fairway Outreach in 1996. The SCJGA also supports a number of Junior Golf Land facilities - nine-hole layouts and practice ranges that are designed to encourage underprivileged and minority youths to become involved with golf.

"I consider myself a lifelong member of Fairway Outreach, and the lessons I learned in the program played a big role in preparing me for West Point," Priester said. "I made some great friends during those years. This was the guiding light for me and a lot of other inner-city guys. It put us with a lot of good and positive people who showed us outlets to be successful."

Bobby Foster, the former head golf coach at the University of South Carolina, has been chairman of Fairway Outreach for more than 20 years; Priester is one of his kids.

"When he I first met Danny, he was skinny, always polite, reasonably measured in his tone of voice, very personable and always smiling," Foster recalls. "He always said 'please' and 'thank you.' His mother, Valerie Priester, who came to our functions, is the same way."

Danny, an only child, was growing up just fine. He made good grades in school and learned the rudiments of golf from Foster. But in January, 2001, when Danny was a sophomore at A.C. Flora High School, tragedy struck. The Priesters' home caught fire and burned to the ground. Danny's father, Danny Priester Sr., was killed in the blaze.

Gus Sylvan, a board member of Fairway Outreach, pitched in to help the Priester family after the fire. Other friends from Danny's junior golf program and high school also stepped up to help however they could.

"The outpouring of support from students was overwhelming," says O'Tasha Morgan, counselor at A.C. Flora High School. "They donated new clothing, money and other essentials. One of his classes donated more than $300 from their own pockets."

Danny was devastated by the loss of his father, but he kept plugging.

"It hit me in the heart, put some things in perspective and emphasized for me being focused, being there for my mom," said Danny. "Now I don't take a day for granted. I don't forget the importance of spending time with family."

Trey Holland, USGA president in 2000-01, played golf with Priester while visiting the Fairway Outreach program. Holland remembers being "dusted" that day by Danny and his golf buddy, Montrele Wells.

"Danny was a quiet kid that day, but he got along well with his friends and he was amazingly well behaved," Holland said. "He has dealt with terrible adversity. After his dad died in the fire, it was his mom who dogged him to continually do the right thing and make the right decisions. It was also Fairway Outreach that was a safe haven for him during that time."

Valerie Priester is fully cognizant of what the game and the Fairway Outreach program have done for her son. "Golf kept him focused," she said. "Danny is an independent person, and in the game of golf you have to do your own thing, so it suited him. Fairway Outreach did a lot for Danny. Danny is a man of faith, and the program related to that."

Danny took odd jobs to help his mother but made time for Flora High School's golf team, contributing with a solid 3.4 Handicap Index. He played in a few tournaments including, in 2001, the World Scholar Athlete Games. Flora won the state 3-A high school golf championship in Danny's senior year.

Danny Priester, left, spends much of his time off duty with the neighborhood kids like Jacodi T. Young, center, and Justin Spann, right. (Russell Kirk/USGA)

He maintained a 3.5 grade average and was a leader of the junior ROTC program. And throughout high school, he stayed connected to Fairway Outreach and Bobby Foster, happy to help the program that had helped him. Once, he was a guest speaker at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes function in Loxahatchee, Fla., sharing the podium with Jack and Barbara Nicklaus and PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem. Barbara Nicklaus later told Foster, "I don't mind following Jack and Tim as a speaker, but that's a pretty tough assignment, following Danny!"

When Priester's senior year rolled around, it was time for Danny to think about his future. At first, he considered the University of South Carolina, where he could try out for the golf team.

"It most definitely was decision time, because I loved the game," Priester said, "but I also knew how prestigious the education was at West Point and how many doors would open for me if I went there. Also, college is so expensive."

To the delight of Holland, Foster and many others, Priester accepted an appointment to the United States Military Academy at West Point. He first spent time at West Point Preparatory School to ready himself for the Point's tough academic program. He played on the West Point golf team his freshman and sophomore years (and was on the boxing team as a junior) before putting aside sports to concentrate on his books.

Priester tossed his hat into the air with his fellow cadets at the West Point graduation ceremony on May 31, 2008. "It was an incredible experience at West Point and a great chance to mature and get my priorities in order for the rest of my life," Priester said. Following a summertime stint at Ranger School, he joined his unit at Fort Benning for 13 weeks of training.

"West Point showed me a lot about myself, what I was capable of," Priester said. "I kind of take it day by day. I'm a Second Lieutenant now and brand new to my profession, but I'll eventually try to pass on to someone else who is coming along."

He spoke so highly of the military that his buddy Montrele Wells, who earned a Physics degree at Benedict College, decided to sign up.

"Danny is one of my best friends and I see how he loves the military, so I'm joining the U.S. Navy," said Wells.

Priester is taking some of golf's lessons into his training for deployment.

"Patience and the focus," he said. "You can't let distractions get in the way. One swing at a time, one shot at a time. One mission. One order. One plan at a time."

Foster says his former charge is one of his heroes. "Danny's about ten times tougher than I am," said Foster. "I know he's stronger emotionally and physically than I am."

Priester credits his family and his mother for providing his motivation. "Seeing how strong she was, it gave me a lot of strength," he said. "I had a lot of support from my family, them backing me so hard. I didn't want to let them down."

There are kids of humble means who are knocked off-stride by the hazards of fate early on and wander through life, aimless and without purpose. Heck, there are kids from privileged backgrounds, with childhoods encompassing too much of everything but love and guidance, who never make it, either.

Then there are kids on the pinnacle of a great pyramid of effort. Parents, friends, teachers, coaches and sports programs help them grow up to become leaders, to inspire us, to become a meaningful part of society. Danny Priester, Jr., Fairway Outreach alumni, West Point class of 2008, is one of those kids.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at rglenn@usga.org .

  





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