Noor Ahmed was a 13-year-old Folsom seventh-grader when she decided to start wearing a hijab.
At an age when fitting in typically is the top priority, she decided honoring her Muslim faith was more important.
It was an emotional decision. Even at her age, the American-born daughter of Egyptian immigrants knew it would have consequences. Ahmed guessed she would lose friends in an increasingly anti-Muslim environment and relationship dynamics would change, and she was correct.
“Some people just said she’s not one of us anymore,” she said of those who turned their backs.
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In her time of turmoil, the First Tee of Greater Sacramento and the golf community stepped up. Before her initial First Tee outing after her decision, Ahmed was nervous about the reaction her headscarf, and public covering of her arms and legs, might elicit.
“No one seemed to notice,” she said. “No one seemed to care. I was just the same kid. I was just Noor. It was the best response.”
It was so First Tee.
The day everything changed
When Ahmed, an 18-year-old graduate of Vista del Lago High School, begins classes next month on a golf scholarship at the University of Nebraska, she will become one of the most accomplished First Tee alumnae.
Her long climb started at the bottom.
Painfully shy as a little girl, she was bullied and ignored throughout elementary school. As she grew older, classmates would befriend her while seeking assistance with homework assignments, then shun “the nerd” when they no longer needed her help.
She thought of herself as unworthy of friendship, her self-esteem nonexistent.
Her father, Tamer, and her mother, Hoda, came from athletic backgrounds and exposed Ahmed and her younger brother, Yusuf, to all sorts of sports. But for Ahmed, swimming, tennis, gymnastics and T-ball didn’t stick.
Her parents enrolled her in the local First Tee chapter when she was 9. For 18 months, she competed on TFTGS’ junior tour but only on the program’s fringes without participating in the Life Skills session that precedes every tournament. She was too shy, she said. Her father encouraged her to attend but, sensitive to her anxiety, didn’t insist.
One day before a tournament at Winchester when Ahmed was 11, First Tee executive director Angie Dixon, seeing Ahmed’s reticence, took her hand – and changed her life. Ahmed recounted the moment during a speech at the Congressional Breakfast in Washington, D.C., on April 26, National Golf Day.
“Angie took me by the hand and told me we would do the lesson together,” Ahmed told a room of political and golf power players. “She may never know or understand how in that very moment she changed my life. She noticed the shy, introverted girl that no one had noticed before and by her small action told me I was part of a group and that I was wanted.
“My journey with the First Tee began there. It helped mold me in ways I would have never imagined.”
Dixon cried when she saw a video of the speech – she didn’t learn about it until weeks later. She had no idea about her impact on Ahmed. And while Dixon doesn’t remember the moment to which Ahmed referred, she’s not surprised by the end result.
The First Tee, with its nine core values, family feel and support system of caring adults and mentors, has a way of building confidence, especially in girls.
“I’ve seen it time and time again with young ladies who come into our program,” Dixon said. “They won’t shake your hand or look you in the eye, then they come out on the other end speaking in front of people and exhibiting much greater confidence.”
Cornhusker State calls
Ahmed shot a 113 in her first competitive 18-hole round. She remembers it well because Dixon taught her about goal-setting on the first tee. Her goal was to not finish last; she beat a girl who shot a 114.
She broke par for the first time when she was a high school sophomore. She competed in the Champions Tour First Tee Open at Pebble Beach when she was a junior. She qualified for the California high school championship when she was a senior. Each was a goal accomplished.
“Goal-setting is a huge part of the First Tee, and they showed me how to put that into my life,” Ahmed said.
She will take a 1.4 handicap index, a flowing swing, consistent ball-striking, an impeccable short game and an even-keel nature to Nebraska, where she plans to study biology and pursue nursing.
While Nebraska wouldn’t strike anyone as the first place a hijab-wearing athlete would gravitate toward, Ahmed connected with veteran coach Robin Krapfl.
“Our athletic department prides itself on diversity and inclusion,” said Krapfl, in her 30th year coaching women’s golf at the school. “Noor will be very well received by her teammates and Husker athletes.
“I care about her religious beliefs, but that’s not why I recruited her or didn’t recruit her. I’m looking at her as a student and as a golfer.”
It’s a hijab – just ask her
Ahmed was born in Austin, Texas, but she has lived most of her life in a home along the seventh fairway at Empire Ranch. After she began wearing a hijab and lost friends who couldn’t see past how she dressed or her faith, she questioned whether being an American and a Muslim were antithetical.
“It made me not necessarily question my faith, am I believing the right thing,” she said. “It was more like, does my faith belong here? Can I practice my faith well enough here? Can I live here as a normal person?”
Ahmed likes studying people who have struggled with similar questions.
“Growing up as a Muslim American after 9/11 is really hard, but I think it’s important to have friends of every faith, and especially friends of your faith who are struggling together,” she said.
About 1 percent of the United States’ 322 million people are Muslim, and Ahmed has not seen anyone else wearing a headscarf on a golf course. She gets looks, she said, acknowledging it’s normal for anyone to question something so different. She welcomes inquiries.
“I love explaining why I wear the hijab,” she said. “I think it’s important. I’d rather people approach me than stare from afar.
“When it’s hot, a lot of people think it’s some sort of sun shield. Or it provides warmth when it’s cold.
“In the golf world, I think it’s helped me. It’s one way that I’m different from everybody else. At tournaments, I’m really easy to spot – ‘Oh, it’s Noor.’ It’s a little harder when it’s 105 degrees. It’s hot. I’m feeling it, but I’m used to it.”
As for an increase in attacks against Muslims in this country, Ahmed said she keeps the faith.
“I think it freaks out my parents a lot more than it freaks me out,” she said. “I feel bad for (the perpetrators) because they’ve lost their freedom because of their ignorance.
“I’ve always been a part of ‘We the People.’ It’s some other people who have yet to recognize that.”
Paying it forward
Ahmed had barely climbed out of her car Friday morning at Haggin Oaks before a First Tee junior/senior fundraising tournament when calls from friends filled the parking lot. “Noor!” came from one direction. “Hi Noor!” from another.
How times have changed.
Ahmed said she wouldn’t have continued to play golf if not for all the friends she met through the First Tee.
“That kept me interested in the game even when it got really hard,” she said.
Ahmed achieved the highest level of First Tee certification. She earned an unheard-of nine “national opportunities” that allowed her to meet former President George W. Bush, Michelle Howard (the first four-star female admiral in the U.S. Navy), former pro golfer Annika Sorenstam and other political and business heavyweights.
She spends countless hours volunteering with the First Tee’s youngest members, seeing a little bit of herself at that age in every one.
“Every kid has a different personality,” she said. “From working with younger kids as a volunteer, you learn to meet every kid where they are and then show them where they can get to. That’s what my coaches did for me.”
Tom Morton, a First Tee coach and mentor, doesn’t hold back expressing his opinion of Ahmed’s legacy.
“She’s the most incredible person to ever come through the First Tee,” he said.