LPGA Tour pro Maria Fassi takes on golf inclusion with her nonprofit

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 1,454 views 

Maria Fassi with her cousin Josefina Gomez during a Fassi's Friends clinic last year at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers.

When Maria Fassi played collegiately at the University of Arkansas, she found stardom on the golf course.

In 2019, she was runner-up at the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur, played ahead of the Masters. She became the UA’s second-ever NCAA national champion (Stacy Lewis) that same year, winning the 54-hole tournament by four shots at Blessings Golf Club in Johnson.

She turned professional after graduating from the UA, making her professional debut at the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open, where she finished T12.

In her fourth season as a touring pro, golf still fills Fassi’s days and demands her attention. But the 24-year-old also chases after a philanthropic goal when she’s not competing. And it’s not just another professional athlete’s vanity project. It’s a personal mission.

Fassi’s Friends, the LPGA Tour golfer’s nonprofit foundation, launched a year ago. The primary platform is a series of inclusive and adaptable clinics — free of charge for ages 5 to 17 — that bring disabled and full-bodied kids together to learn the game.

For the clinics, Fassi’s Friends partners with another nonprofit, First Tee, a national youth development organization that teaches kids life skills through golf. They are held weekly at First Tee’s Northwest Arkansas affiliate in Lowell.

Fassi’s Friends started with one hour-long session per week. There are now two per week — serving about 15 kids per session — with a waiting list.

“It’s growing like crazy,” said Randy Hurban, First Tee of Northwest Arkansas executive director. “Maria has a big heart, and she is in it for the kids and the community, and we support that. We align in many different ways. It’s a partnership of two nonprofits doing great things together.”

Fassi has two events planned to raise money and bring awareness to her emerging nonprofit the week of Sept. 19-25 during the LPGA Tour’s annual swing through Northwest Arkansas for the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship at Pinnacle Country Club in Rogers.

The second annual “Fassi’s Friends Topgolf Event” is from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Sept. 21. Bay reservations for up to six people are available from $1,000 to $5,000 and include food, drinks and merchandise. RSM has stepped up to take the lead role as the event’s presenting sponsor. Priority Bank, Blakeman’s Fine Jewelry and Stephens Inc. also financially support the fundraiser, which raised $100,000 in contributions last year.

LPGA Tour professional Maria Fassi has big growth goals for Fassi’s Friends, her nonprofit foundation.

Fassi will also host a kids’ clinic at the First Tee in Lowell on Sept. 22. The following day, Fassi tees off in the first round of the 54-hole LPGA Tour event at Pinnacle Country Club. She is anticipating the week, especially considering it’s the closest event to her home near Fayetteville.

“Winning would be everything to me,” said Fassi, who has three career top-10 finishes but is searching for her first LPGA Tour win. “I would love it for the foundation, and a ‘Razorback’ win at home would be very special.”

For Fassi, inclusion is not just a worthy cause to lend her name and money. It’s a personal inspiration she’s thought about for years because of a family member.

A cousin of Fassi’s of the same age living in Argentina, Josefina Gomez, is mute, deaf, and has brain paralysis.

“She had a tough time finding anybody willing to teach her because of her disability,” Fassi said. “We grew up doing everything together. It was difficult for us when we couldn’t [play] golf together. I have always wanted to do something about it.”

Fassi said equal participation opportunities through Fassi’s Friends apply to kids with disabilities or other reasons, like lower-income families.

“We want to make sure everybody feels like they can come to First Tee to gather and play,” she said.

Olivia Lavy, a friend of Fassi’s and a Fayetteville native, is the nonprofit’s full-time director. They played golf together for the Razorbacks. Lavy explained that conversations to get Fassi’s foundation project off the ground got serious when the pandemic arrived in early 2020.

Lavy had just taken a job in New York City, and Fassi was playing golf. The pandemic put the brakes on both of those careers.

Olivia Lavy

“We were, essentially, at a pause in our lives, so I asked, ‘Why not now?’” Lavy recalled. “I didn’t know when my job would get rolling again, and I told her I’d love to help her. The more we talked, the bigger the idea got.”

Lavy is back in Northwest Arkansas now and committed to growing Fassi’s Friends.

“Maria is one of my closest friends,” Lavy said. “After hearing what’s on her heart and her ideas, I know her vision.”

Fassi’s Friends serves about 175 kids but has large-scale ambitions to expand throughout the U.S. with other First Tee partnerships, possibly also in Mexico and Argentina.

“The big picture dream is to raise enough money to spread Fassi’s Friends outside of Arkansas,” Lavy said. “We’ve had a bunch of [First Tee] chapters reach out, but right now, we’re focused on building the Northwest Arkansas chapter. When it’s stable, we’d love to grow.”