KINGSPORT - The memory of a junior golfer has spurred local businessman Bill Taft to endow a golf education program at the local Boys & Girls Club.
The program is named in honor of Bobby "Popcorn'' Lane, a promising young Kingsport golfer whose life was cut short as the result of an automobile accident.
"Bobby was like a son to me,'' Taft said. "I saw what a good effect golf had on his life and I hope that a program like this can do that for other kids.''
Taft's gift of $400,000 was announced Tuesday night at the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Alderman meeting and will provide the funds to build a state-of-the-art learning center and provide all the necessary equipment for the young golfers in the program.
"I feel that using the Boys & Girls Club is the best way to reach kids who might not ordinarily be exposed to golf,'' Taft said.
Chuck Owens, the executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kingsport, agreed.
"The impact that a program like this can have on our kids is tremendous,'' Owens said. "Like Mr. Taft, we believe that learning the game of golf will build self-esteem, confidence and help kids become responsible young citizens.
"Becoming good golfers will be a byproduct of all the game can teach them about life,'' he added.
When Taft first came to Kingsport in 1960, he ran the old Kingsport driving range on Stone Drive.
"Kids from nearby Highlands used to come down to the range and I'd let them hit balls in exchange for doing chores,'' he said. "Bobby showed up when he was about 7 or 8 years old.''
Lane was a quick study. Not only could he do all the work Taft had for him, he also was a dedicated golfer.
That dedication paid off. By time he was 13, Lane was shooting in the 70s.
He won the sectional qualifying for the state junior at Link Hills Country Club by six shots and finished ninth in the state junior that year while competing against boys three and four years older.
"Bobby took to the game very readily,'' Taft said. "And it affected his life. He dressed better, worked harder on his schoolwork and just became a young gentleman.''
Lane's skills on the golf course were compared by many to a young Jack Nicklaus. But the golf world never had a chance to see where Lane's game would lead him.
Riding home from work on his motor scooter, Lane was hit by a car and paralyzed, his golf career cut short at the age of 14. Bedridden, he died seven years later.
"I've never forgotten him or any of the other kids who worked at the driving range,'' Taft said. "Not a month goes by that I don't run into one of them. They've grown into fine young men with good jobs and families. And many of them still play golf.
"Golf impacted their lives,'' he added. "With no caddy programs around, there's no way for kids like that to be introduced to the game. I want this program to do that.''
Longtime friend Alex Looney is working with Taft on the project.
"Our plan is to have an 850-square-foot indoor learning center at the new Boys & Girls Club off Stone Drive," Looney said. "There will be an onsite person to run the program.''
Looney added that an emphasis would be placed on the rules and etiquette of the game of golf.
"Bill and I feel strongly that the integrity of the game of golf transfers into your life,'' he said. "We'll teach kids the basic fundamentals and then see where they take the game.''
Taft has one personal ambition for the program.
"It would be great to one day see some boys and girls come out of this program and play on the Dobyns-Bennett golf teams,'' he said.
But his fundamental goal for the Bill Taft Trust in memory of Bobby Lane remains constant.
"I'm convinced that the love of the game of golf will help kids make better choices in life,'' Taft said. "If we can make a difference in just one child because of this golf program, it will all have been worthwhile.''