Golfer SCOREs with business idea

John Walton will be inducted into the African American Golfers Hall of Fame next month in West Palm Beach, Fla. (File/Staff)

Golf enthusiast John Walton noticed the positive results of teaching the game to his grandson.

"I saw it as a way of keeping him heading in the right direction more times than not," said Walton, a former Sears general manager who retired from the Citadel Mall store in 2002.

"There are out of bounds in golf and life. There are traps and opportunities to get into trouble and stay out of it in golf and life. When you understand the game and expose them to it early, children are conscious of the impact on their lives."

With that in mind, Walton, now 64, launched O.K. Golf LLC in Charleston in 2005 with business partner Steve Conrad. O.K. stands for Our Kids.

For a fee, the business helps children in kindergarten through age 8 develop golf skills using specially designed equipment for their size. It also teaches them sportsmanship, teamwork and life skills in after-class sessions at many schools across metro Charleston.

Because of Walton's program and success, he will be honored Sept. 16 during a black-tie event in Washington, D.C., at the second annual SCORE Awards for operating the best minority-owned business in the nation.

SCORE, which provides mentoring and counseling to entrepreneurs across the country and formerly was known as the Service Corps of Retired Executives, received numerous success stories from its 364 chapters nationwide.

But Walton's stood out, said SCORE's Bridget Weston, a field marketing manager.

"He had this great idea," Weston said. "He met with a SCORE mentor, and he helped him with a realistic look at a way to start and grow and be successful."

Though he had gained nearly 30 years of experience at Sears, Walton said he didn't know how to launch his own business.

"I spent my career in the business industry, but it was not as a business owner," Walton said. "They helped me with business-plan formation and a marketing strategy. SCORE was invaluable in identifying resources that would get our business up and running."

Walton said he's flattered by the national recognition.

"To see a young person swing a golf club and hit a ball that soars into the air and see their eyes light up, it's really enjoyable," Walton said. "I'm really proud and excited for the selection."

The business, which charges $120 per child for a six-week session, averaged just over 100 participants during its first four years, but so far this year just 26 children signed up for the course.

"I'm a little bit disappointed in the numbers this year, but I think it's because of the economy," he said. "The kids seem to really have fun and enjoy themselves and do it safely. That's what matters."

Walton gave credit to Conrad, his business partner, and eight instructors who also help out.

"I didn't do it alone," he said.

Weston of SCORE said O.K. Golf epitomizes social and economic progress. Walton is black, Conrad is white.

"We hope that the award serves as a catalyst for other small businesses to emulate our honoree's success story," Weston said.

The minority-owned business award is one of five categories SCORE is recognizing. The others are for businesses that are female-owned, socially progressive, veteran-owned and started by an individual over 50.

Reach Warren Wise at 937-5524 or wwise@postandcourier.com.