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VOL. 45 | NO. 47 | Friday, November 19, 2021

UT golfer creates program to lead more youth to game

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Cross

-- Photograph Provided

The children attending the clinic at the Gatlinburg Golf Course were told to watch the Golf Channel when they got home because Spencer Cross was playing in a tournament for the University of Tennessee.

Not only is Cross one of the top golfers in college, they were told, he was just like them.

The Sevierville native grew up playing the local courses, developing his game with support from the local community.

Cross founded Smoky Mountain Junior Golf earlier this year as an attempt to repay some of what he had been given. The nonprofit is dedicated to giving Sevier County children the chance to play golf, learn life skills and meet new friends.

The week after the young golfers saw Cross on TV, the UT fifth-year senior appeared at the next clinic to provide instruction and inspiration.

“Golf is a sport that is kind of hard to access in terms of financial status,” Cross says. “I am very grateful my family was able to give me opportunities, but I know many parents can’t afford it. That is one part of why I really wanted to give back in some way.”

Smoky Mountain Junior Golf provides free access to golf instruction and equipment to children who are residents of Sevier County. The program is open to children eight years old through high school.

For more information on the Smoky Mountain Junior Golf program, contact the Gatlinburg Golf Course at 865-453-3912 or follow the organization on Instagram @smoky_mountain_junior_golf

SMJG members are eligible to play a free nine-hole round at the Gatlinburg Golf Course Monday-Thursday after 4 p.m. The staff at Gatlinburg Golf Course, led by manager Matthew Poff, also provides free weekly clinics.

The organization just completed its first fall season and plans to resume again in the spring with even more juniors involved as word spreads.

“I think the biggest thing is just letting kids understand what golf can do for your life,” Cross explains. “I would love for all the kids to go on and get college scholarships in the game of golf, but I would also love for them to realize how good of a game it is for you in all aspects of just developing yourself and networking and meeting new people and just learning integrity and so many different things.”

Bill Oliver has been playing golf in Sevier County for 30 years. He’s says he’s watched Cross develop on the local courses and wasn’t surprised when Cross expressed his desire to start a nonprofit.

“Spencer understands he has a gift to play the game and he has been fortunate enough to be able to play all over the country,” says Oliver, a member of the SMJG board. “He also understands how important it is to grow the game and how important it is for the young people to have mentors and people that can introduce them to the game we love.”

Clinics and free course time are open to those in eighth grade through high school.

-- Photograph Provided

Nate Vaughn followed a similar path as Cross. The sophomore at Walters State attended Wearwood Elementary School in Sevierville, where he was the only golfer in the K-8 student body at the time. He was one of just two golfers on the team during his first two years at Pigeon Forge High.

“Golf has not been a huge thing here,” he says. “There are a lot of older people who play, but not that many juniors compared to places like Knoxville or the middle part of the state and Nashville junior golf,” Vaughn explains.

“That is why it’s really cool what Spencer is trying to do. Anyone who knows him knows his heart and knows the kind of person he is and it is really showing with what he is doing with Smoky Mountain Junior Golf.”

Vaughn volunteered to work two of the fall clinics hosted by SMJG and told his parents to spread the word around the area to encourage more kids to join.

“I am really hoping that some golfers from Wearwood, in particular, pick it up just because in this little town it’s not considered a cool thing to play golf,” Vaughn adds. “But I know what it has done for me and how much of an impact it’s had on my life for the better.”

Cross says he is grateful the local golf courses have been receptive to the nonprofit’s mission. He views SMJG as a win for everyone because it will give kids access to golf and help grow the game overall.

“The courses here allowed me to play golf for cheap or at no cost for all those years because they believed in me and they just wanted to do something good for a local kid. I don’t see why we can’t do that for a lot more kids,” Cross says. “There are a lot of people who want to make a difference in the community and give back to golf.”

The enrollment and participation in SMJG increased every week throughout the fall. After the final free clinic, the organization gave out two sets of new golf clubs.

One recipient was a 9-year-old girl, and her reaction was the only metric everyone involved needed to measure success.

“She just lit up and couldn’t believe anyone would do that for her,” Oliver says. “Now she has the opportunity to continue to grow and learn the game on the golf courses around here. That is exactly what Spencer envisioned.”

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