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Tony Paul talks about Bubba Watson’s donation of $20,000 to First Tee with Olajuwon Ajanaku. The Detroit News

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Detroit — You'd think Olajuwon Ajanaku would've been destined to play basketball. Yes, he was named after Hakeem Olajuwon, and yes, basketball was his first sport.

But an introduction to the First Tee program, as a 6-year-old in Atlanta, changed everything.

"A friend of the family actually introduced me to the sport. We went to a pro shop, and there was a net," said Ajanaku, noting this was before golf simulators were the rage. "We were hitting into a net, and I missed it."

The net?

"The entire ball," he said. "I didn't even hit it. And I've just been hooked ever since."

The First Tee of Greater Detroit is one of the chief beneficiaries for the millions of charity dollars expected to be raised at the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club this week.

The program actually got a headstart in the fundraising department earlier this week, when Bubba Watson, one of the game's best golfers, announced a $20,000 donation. He wanted to do something to honor Dan Gilbert, the Quicken Loans founder who recently suffered a stroke, and was inspired after watching the junior clinic on the driving range Monday.

That donation, Ajanaku said, is absolutely huge.

"Now they can get a few more clubs for the kids. Things aren't free, and golf is expensive," he said.

"A lot of the kids that come out, half of them can't really afford equipment."

The First Tee was founded in 1997, and since has worked with more than 9 million kids. It strives not only to teach golf, but also life skills.

Those skills went a long way for Ajanaku, who ended up earning The First Tee scholarship en route to Morehouse College.

After graduating, he tried his luck on the mini-tours and was comfortable with his game, but golf, like he said, is expensive, and if you don't have the sponsorships, you don't have the opportunities.

Eventually, he ended up working for Enterprise Car Rental, and a chance encounter with a customer led Ajanaku to offer that client some golf lessons. That client's team ended up winning a scramble thanks in part to those lessons — and a year-and-a-half ago, when that client went looking for a regional sales manager, he called Ajanaku.

Golf. It can be so much more than a game. That's what The First Tee taught him.

"Oh man, golf in general and The First Tee, they have morals and values they actually go by, honesty, integrity, respect. Those things helped me in life. Those are life skills," Ajanaku said. "You have those skills in life, you can become a decent human being.

"And The First Tee actually taught me etiquette, how to interact in the world itself."

A year-and-a-half ago, Ajanaku got the job as regional sales manager for the Commercial Credit Group, bringing him to Detroit.

And, of course, when he arrived in Detroit, he got involved with The First Tee of Greater Detroit. He volunteers, typically, two times a month, working with 30 to 35 kids during a session. The sessions are at Rackham Golf Course in Huntington Woods.

This is an especially exciting week for Ajanaku, with the PGA Tour making its first-ever stop in the city of Detroit. Most PGA Tour stops are in suburbs of big cities. Only a few are right in the heart. This is one of them — like the Tour Championship in Atlanta, Ajanaku's hometown.

"This is a big deal," said Ajanaku, 30, whose First Tee is joined by the Midnight Golf Program, the Detroit Golf Club Caddie Scholarship Fund and Detroit Children's Fund as the main charities to benefit from this week's Rocket Mortgage Classic. "Bringing golf, the PGA, to Detroit is a big deal, because it influences there are kids that have never seen golf being played, there are kids that don't know what golf is about. They just know it might be boring. Now they get to come out here, see the nice grass, see the clubhouse. ... It's great momentum into them liking golf.

"And golf is just a tool that can be used for a lot of these kids.

"Golf is hard. If you can play golf, you feel like you can do anything."

In life, and on the links.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984

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