PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida – James Roller of Jenks, Oklahoma, and Charlotte Hillary of Cherry Hills Village, Colorado, were awarded the American Junior Golf Association’s Jerry Cole Sportsmanship Award on Sunday, November 24, during the Rolex Junior All-America Awards Banquet at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.
Since 1978, the Jerry Cole Sportsmanship Award has been annually presented to a junior golfer who best promotes integrity and sportsmanship in his or her golf game. In 2000, the award was named for Jerry Cole, a longtime friend and AJGA board member. The bronze replica of Jerry’s favorite hat is one of the AJGA’s longest-running honors and 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.
Both Roller and Hillary have used the game of golf to give back to local golf programs through personal volunteer efforts and their Leadership Links campaigns. To date, the pair have raised more than $55,000 through Leadership Links.
Roller, who recently signed a National Letter of Intent with Texas Tech, has been active in Leadership Links for the past few years, raising nearly $17,000 for College Golf Fellowship.
“The fact that James has raised the money allows us to spend more time one-on-one with college golfers or going to more tournaments,” said College Golf Fellowship staffer Karsten Majors. “The fact that someone, especially someone in high school, is going out and raising support is huge.”
Roller’s impact on the College Golf Fellowship has been substantial, but his effect on others is what truly sets him apart. While staying with a host family at a tournament near St. Louis last year, Roller befriended the family’s son who has autism.
“James would sit and listen to my son, play video games with him and laugh at his jokes,” said David Pfeil. “He gained the love and respect from our family. It is hard to explain, but when your child has had a very rough life, then has the best week of his life hanging with James, it just makes you smile and appreciate great people.”
Roller prides himself on being kind to others, both in his daily life and on the golf course. An example of this came during the 2018 Oklahoma High School State Championship. Roller was the No. 1 player on his high school team and faced pressure to excel. During the first two rounds, Roller's was paired with a junior who shot rounds in the 100's. Not only did Roller score in the 60s to lead his team to the title, but he encouraged the opposing player during rounds and helped with ball searches.
“Sportsmanship is a reflection of James’ life,” said family friend Dave Wilber. “He continues to meet people and be with people and make them feel better about themselves. What could be a better thing to say about another human being?”
Hillary, who recently signed a National Letter of Intent to play college golf at Northwestern, began volunteering with The First Tee of Green Valley Ranch two years ago.
“What’s really nice about Charlotte is that she chose us, we didn’t go out and recruit her,” said Kevin Laura, CEO of The First Tee of Green Valley Ranch. “She drives an hour each way to volunteer, it’s not like we’re in her neighborhood.”
Despite being a student athlete with a heavy course load and practice schedule, Hillary still makes time each week to teach the children how to play golf, in addition to the core values of The First Tee.
“Working with the kids is easy, they all respect Charlotte because of her accomplishments in the game,” said Chris Nordling, past chair of The First Tee of Green Valley Ranch. “But she’s also just so personable and so helpful to the kids.”
One of Hillary’s best moments as a mentor came early on when a young girl was celebrating a hole-in-one that may not have actually happened.
“Instead of calling her out on it, Charlotte sat her down and said, ‘We’ll make a big deal out of this if you really think it’s worth making a big deal out of, but really the game of golf is about being humble as well, and not screaming your accomplishments from the rooftop,’” Laura said. “When I heard about that experience and how she handled that, I just knew that we had a special volunteer and someone who wasn’t just putting in the hours, but that she had a calling to do this kind of thing.
“By the way, that girl she spoke to the year before had her most outstanding year this year not only as a player, but she matured the most out of anyone in the program.”
After spending 2018 volunteering her time with other children, Hillary decided to make an even bigger impact in 2019 through fundraising. Hillary started the year with a lofty goal of raising $25K total for The First Tee of Green Valley Ranch and the AJGA’s Achieving Competitive Excellence (ACE) Grant via Leadership Links. To achieve her goal, Hillary started a campaign where donors could pledge a specific amount for every birdie or eagle she made throughout the year. Hillary ultimately shattered her goal on the way to raising a total of $38,530.
“There are a number of our board members who don’t have that big of an impact, and she’s only 17 years old,” Laura said. “She’s quite remarkable, and it puts her heads and shoulders above the rest.”
In addition to her fundraising success, Hillary won her first AJGA event at the 2019 AJGA Junior at Big Sky and was recognized as a Rolex Junior All-American for the first time. No matter the accolades she receives, Hillary always strives to embody the values focused on by The First Tee. She proved that early in 2019 at the C.T. Pan Junior Championship when she accidentally made a rules breach with no one around.
Lift, clean and place was in play during one of the tournament rounds, but the next day it was rescinded. During her round, Hillary forgot it was rescinded and picked up her ball. After realizing that she made a mistake, Hillary immediately put the ball back down. Looking around, she realized that no one was around to see her error. Despite having no one see her mistake, Hillary immediately found the nearest rules official and called the penalty on herself.
“Charlotte’s a wonderful competitor and great golfer, but I think what really stands out is her respect for the game,” said her golf coach Don Hurter. “Win, lose or draw, she always congratulates her opponents, playing partners or friends if they did well. I think she’s got the right perspective on the attitude that you should have when you’re playing golf. If you win a tournament, or you don’t win a tournament, you still act the same and you respect the game as well.”