BRASELTON, Ga. - Allie Kantor of Milton, Georgia, and Jackson Van Paris of Pinehurst, North Carolina, were honored with the American Junior Golf Association’s Jerry Cole Sportsmanship Award on Friday, December 4. Annually announced during the Rolex Junior All-America Awards Show, in 2020 the AJGA's annual "Greatest Night in Junior Golf" was operated virtually for the first time.
The Jerry Cole Sportsmanship Award is annually presented to a junior golfer who best promotes integrity and sportsmanship. First awarded in 1978, the award was re-named for Jerry Cole, a longtime friend and AJGA Board member, in 2000. The bronze replica of Jerry’s favorite hat is a reminder of how proud he was of his association with the organization. In 2019, the AJGA adjusted its criteria to honor one boy and one girl who serve the game in an outstanding way.
Recipients of the Jerry Cole Sportsmanship Award impact others in a positive manner and truly embody the spirit of the game through the AJGA’s Leadership Links program.
Beginning in 2009, Leadership Links was created to serve the AJGA mission to help develop young men and women by teaching charitable-giving skills and service-oriented practices at an early age. Junior golfers have raised nearly $3 million for more than 2,500 distinct programs and completed more than 50,000 service hours since the program's inception.
Kantor and Van Paris both used the game of golf to give back through their Leadership Links campaigns. To date, the pair have raised nearly $40,000 through Leadership Links.
Kantor's journey to the Jerry Cole Sportsmanship Award began with a life-changing diagnosis on her 13th birthday. An x-ray confirmed her pediatrician's suspicions of scoliosis. The sideways curvature of the spine affects 2-3 percent of the population.
Unfortunately, Kantor had a large 30-degree curve in her thoracic spine coupled with an 11-degree curve in her neck and an 18-degree curve in her lumbar spine.
The initial diagnosis required aggressive bracing treatments and ultimately a possible spinal fusion surgery, where metal rods, screws, hooks, and wires are used to mechanically straighten a spine.
"I knew that spinal fusion in all three regions would cause me to lose a large portion of my ability to rotate, and I likely would not be able to reach my full potential on the golf course," Kantor said.
The high school senior advocated to find another way.
"I was determined to avoid surgery and get back to golf. My competitive side saw treatment as a test: how much correction in my curve I could achieve," Kantor said. "I wore the brace religiously for 22 hours per day, 7 days per week, for 18 full months and I adhered to a rigorous physical therapy routine. I stuffed mini ice packs in the brace cavities so I could bear the stifling Atlanta summer heat."
In most cases, scoliosis patients receive no correction through bracing and can only hope to hold their curve at the initial degree. Kantor prevailed: just two years after her diagnosis, she walked into her freshman year of high school with a 22-degree curve in her spine, a full eight degrees better.
"It takes a lot of perseverance to have something bestowed upon you like this that requires wearing a brace 16 hours a day: directly against the sport of golf," said Nicholas Fletcher, MD, her orthopedic surgeon and Medical Director of Spine Program Quality and Outcomes at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. "For her to persevere through that, there's a lot of dedication she put in."
Since making a return to competitive golf in 2017, Kantor has competed in eight AJGA tournaments. She notched her best finish to date (T10) at the Stewart Cink Championship by Transamerica in October. Kantor has found success on the national circuit, but she has also made an impact as a leader and mentor of her high school golf team.
"She makes other girls around her better because they see her work ethic," said David Burnett, Blessed Trinity Catholic High School varsity golf coach. "They come to me and they ask, 'What can I do to get better?' [I say] Just go watch Allie."
Kantor relishes every opportunity to step out on the golf course, and she'll never forget what it took to get back in the game. That's why in 2019 she decided to support other kids facing bleak scoliosis diagnoses. Kantor began a Leadership Links campaign on behalf of the Outcomes Center at Children's.
"My fundraising will help Dr. Fletcher collect better data from patients with a variety of spinal deformities, including early onset and juvenile scoliosis," Kantor said. "By collecting more data, Dr. Fletcher and the other doctors at Children's can improve their knowledge of spinal deformities and increase positive outcomes for other patients."
Kantor has raised more than $7,000 of her $10,000 goal to date, with $5,745 raised alone in 2020. She will finish her junior golf career in the spring before heading to the University of Virginia in the fall.
Jackson Van Paris
Golf has always been more than a game to the Van Paris family. They view it as a catalyst for good in the community.
Van Paris was introduced to Leadership Links at age 12 via the Dormie Cup (now Carolina Cup). This event in 2010 was the first to begin the AJGA's State Cup Series - a pathway using inspiration from Ryder Cup and other team formats to fundraise through Leadership Links. This event set a path for juniors to compete and have fun on top courses in the Pinehurst, North Carolina, area. They've always earned entry through fundraising for a good cause.
For Van Paris, this event wasn't just an introduction to the AJGA, it was an example of all the good things the game can do.
"I thought it was incredible," Van Paris said. "I was super young so I didn't really know the impact it made, but I just thought it was really cool that a tournament that didn't help rankings could draw a field of such talented guys who were just passionate about the event."
Of all the events on the schedule, this quickly became what the Van Paris family circled on the calendar each year. Jackson not only participated in the event over the years, but positioned himself to one day take over the event and carry on the legacy set forth by Patrick Cover, Thomas Walsh and Michael Sanders. The opportunity to take over the Carolina Cup came in 2017, and Van Paris didn't hesitate.
Under his leadership, the Carolina Cup raised $250,000 in four years on behalf of the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation and the ACE Grant. Van Paris alone has raised more than $32,000 during his lifetime involvement in the event.
"The four years I led the Carolina Cup gave me an entirely new perspective on life and golf," Van Paris said. "It gave less importance to making a bogey and more importance to helping others."
Giving back is just one of the many lessons Van Paris takes from his career.
"I'm naturally very competitive, and I hate to lose," Van Paris said. "In the past, I wasn't always gracious in defeat. My friends showed me how to handle those situations the right way. Seeing them handle pain and disappointment with incredible sportsmanship showed me how to better compose myself.
"Mr. Cole would be so glad to know that junior golfers show such class even in their toughest moments."
Van Paris himself is an accomplished golfer. He has compiled three AJGA victories including two Invitationals. The four-time Rolex Junior All-American also won the 2020 Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. Van Paris is committed to Vanderbilt University.
Despite an intense dedication to his game, Van Paris prides himself on being there for his friends.
"When I got to know him, I noticed how caring he was," said his friend and fellow top player David Ford. "He had been playing at the highest level for awhile, and he really helped me out. That's the thing that stands out most to me, is how helpful he is. He's always willing to help others before himself, on the golf course and even off."
As Van Paris rounds out his junior golf career, he prepares to pass on the reigns to the Carolina Cup. Leaving his mark on the event's storied legacy is something Van Paris will never take for granted.
"The coolest part for me is knowing that I made a lasting impact on the tournament," Van Paris said. "The tournament is such a good cause. For me, I get a lot of satisfaction knowing I set the event up well for the future. I not only led it, but I found some great guys to take it over. It was important to me to keep it going into the future."