American Dream: How golf kept OKC native Rayshon Payton on course for success
Rayshon Payton took piano lessons growing up on the northeast side of Oklahoma City, but it wasn’t really his thing.
Neither was playing basketball. Or learning the trumpet.
Then he tried golf.
He was 13 when he got into the sport, and right away, he loved its challenges. Learning how to hit all those clubs. Trying to perfect your swing. Having a plan for each hole, then figuring out what to do when your tee shot goes in the rough or your approach lands in the bunker.
“It definitely resonated differently,” Payton said of the game.
Almost 20 years later, it’s still resonating. Payton says without golf, he wouldn’t be where he is today — working in Washington, D.C., and taking the early steps on a path he hopes will eventually lead to the United States Supreme Court.
On the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate our country’s independence and all its glorious trappings — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — Payton is pursuing his happiness because of sports. It gave him a roadmap to chase his American dream.
Payton has long known he wanted a career in law. He’s not sure what spurred his interest, but having friends whose parents were lawyers likely planted the seed. He always loved law-and-order TV shows with courtroom drama, too.
He felt drawn to be a lawyer because he wanted to help people.
But he began looking at that dream differently when he started playing golf in First Tee of Metro OKC. The nationwide youth development program came to Oklahoma City in the early 2000s, and Payton was among the first students.
First Tee teaches character development through its “Nine Core Values,” a list that includes honesty, integrity and confidence. There are also lessons on life skills such as how to properly introduce yourself to someone. Eye contact. Firm handshake. A clear, “My name is Rayshon Payton.”
“It is actually experience learning,” said Debi Martin, executive director of First Tee of Metro OKC. “It’s not … sitting in a classroom and someone saying, ‘This is respect.’ It’s letting them experience what respect really is. It becomes part of their lives, and then it becomes impactful.
“They’ve transitioned the information to every-day life.”
Payton quickly realized what he was learning on the course was relevant to his dream of being a lawyer.
“It provided the structure that allowed me to visualize these goals and work toward achieving them,” he said. “It definitely provided a foundation and a structure of how to navigate life.”
He started thinking about short-term and long-term goals. How do you develop a plan? What are the steps along the way? What happens when something goes wrong?
Payton remembers learning about S.T.A.R.
“It’s stop, think, anticipate and respond,” he said, “and you do that every time you run into an obstacle.
“Yes, I want to hit the first tee ball into the fairway, but when you hit it in the rough, do you go home? You don’t go home. You figure out how to get the ball back into the fairway and you go from there.”
That was the kind of lesson that carried over to wanting to be a lawyer. He knew there would be challenges along the way, but if he was willing to evaluate what he could do and how he could respond, he could figure out how to keep moving forward. Those sorts of skills gave him a clearer vision of how to start down the path.
Hopes became plans.
Dreams became goals.
After graduating from Northeast High School, Payton went to Oklahoma City University, where he played on the men’s golf team and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He then went to law school at Oklahoma.
The summer after his second year of law school, he interned at The White House in the Office of Public Engagement.
A year later, he was back in the nation’s capital working in the U.S. House of Representatives, which quickly led to a spot with the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee. Payton was associate director working on policies and initiatives for the Senate’s Democratic leadership. He did that for almost five years.
Now, the 31-year-old is the legislative director for Kendra Horn, U.S. Representative for the Oklahoma’s 5th District. Every day, Payton is living his dream of being a lawyer and doing work that helps people.
But he still has a bigger ambition of one day working in another branch of the federal government — he wants to be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.
He recognizes what an audacious goal that is — a guy from Oklahoma City becoming one of the nine most powerful judges in the nation — but he has already done things that were out of the ordinary. Most of his friends growing up didn’t play golf. Ditto for most of his classmates in high school. But that didn’t stop him.
“It’s OK that you don’t know anyone who’s done what you’re trying to do,” Payton said. “If you can dream it, you can achieve it.”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK or follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok.
No prior golfing knowledge is necessary for kids to participate in The First Tee. The only requirement is being between the ages of 7 and 18. Currently, First Tee of Metro OKC is offering summer camps at several courses around the metro area. The cost is $25, and scholarships are available.
To register or for more information, go to TheFirstTeeMetroOKC.org.