Thomas Cleek has been playing golf for as long as he can remember. The pairing—Cleek and golfing—was just one of those things that was meant to be.
At the age of 3, Cleek started participating in Special Olympics Missouri’s Young Athletes program, an early childhood program that introduces children ages 2-7 to sports. Now, at the age of 23, he’s competed in two USA Games: in 2014 and again in 2018. He also won gold at the 2022 Special Olympics Missouri State Outdoor Games, where he shot a 75 at Oak Hills Golf Center in Jefferson City. “I’ve put all my life into golf, and it’s been very important to me as far as having my career,” Cleek says.
Back in 2018, Cleek, along with seven golfers from the USA Games, participated in the United PGA Experience at the Northern Trust Open. He received tips from PGA Tour professionals and played three holes with pro golfer James Hahn. If he ever had dreams of being involved with the PGA Tour before, this experience only propelled that dream to the next level. It opened Cleek’s mind to the possibility that a career in golf could be reality.
While attending Missouri State University (MSU), Cleek played for the school’s club golf team. He wanted to learn the necessary skills to one day teach and coach golf—especially for Special Olympics Missouri. He was a part of the Bear POWER Program at Missouri State University, a two-year five-semester program that aims to be an inclusive college program for individuals with intellectual disabilities. “It was a really cool experience,” he says about attending MSU and playing club golf.
And eventually, he started to pursue a more direct career in the golf space—a PGA Membership card. The card would allow him to play for a discounted rate, and he’d be able to use the PGA name and logo for business cards, among several other rewarding advantages.
“Part of moving forward in my career is joining the PGA program and learning how to become a teaching pro,” Cleek says. “I have to complete all three levels of my coursework, but once I complete all three levels, I’ll be an official PGA member.”
Within the coursework he’ll learn things like business planning, career enhancement, learning all aspects of the game and player development.
“He is very patient with athletes and can break [things] down so they can understand it better,” Susan Shaffer, the Director of Training for Special Olympics Missouri, says. “Thomas is a great leader on and off the field.”
For now, Cleek works as a sales associate at a golf shop while focusing on completing his coursework for the PGA. He jokes about feeling like a full-time student again.
As for advice to others who want to pursue this route—or have a similar goal— he says they should remain patient and have an open mind to learning. “Take your time, and the main thing is that I haven’t rushed this process at all. It took me some time to even get into the program,” Cleek says.