Charles De Lucca Jr., known for promoting junior golf through the well-regarded First Tee program at Melreese golf course, died Monday. He was 78.
De Lucca had been ill for some time, and hadn’t been seen regularly at the golf course over the last six months.
De Lucca’s first question for old friends was usually, “How are the kids?” That’s how Carlos Rodriguez, a First Tee Miami board member, remembered De Lucca on Monday.
“He always asked me about my kids, about how they’re doing in tournaments,” Rodriguez said, his voice tender with emotion. “Always the first question — ‘How are the boys doing?’ ”
Rodriguez’s two sons joined First Tee when they were 4 and 6 years old. They’re now 12 and 14, and Rodriguez went from being a volunteer coach on the weekends to serving on the organization’s board.
“It’s the only way I knew to pay him back for what he has done for my kids,” Rodriguez said.
Like other parents who donned First Tee’s bright orange shirts, Rodriguez became dedicated to the program after seeing De Lucca’s passion for mentoring youths, with a soft spot for children with disabilities. De Lucca had a learning disability growing up. The First Tee hosted qualifiers for the Special Olympics at Melreese.
De Lucca’s philanthropic approach to the sport drew scores of Miami’s children to the city-owned course for years, but some of those who knew him say his commitment to friends and strangers alike was his most memorable quality.
“His legacy spans well beyond golf. ... He helped to keep those kids involved as adults to help the community,” said attorney Thomas Korge, who was a close friend of De Lucca’s and provided legal work to him for free. “He’s just magnanimous, if someone needed help, he helped them. He’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.”
Korge said De Lucca helped create the Sandra De Lucca Developmental Center operated by the City of Miami, named after his late daughter who had a developmental disability. The center hosts recreational and professional programs for people with disabilities, through employment and sports opportunities.
“This is like a private club,” De Lucca told the Miami Herald in 2014, “but we’re not snooty here at all. This is a fun place.”
De Lucca was known as the “godfather of South Florida junior golf,” and his reach extended beyond Miami-Dade County. The state of Florida sells specialty license plates with a silhouette of a golfer standing in front of the sun on a green fairway, swinging a club. De Lucca pushed for the plate, whose proceeds benefit youth golf programs across the state.
De Lucca and First Tee were recently thrust into the spotlight when Melreese was proposed as a potential site for a sprawling commercial and stadium complex that would serve as the venue for home games to be played by Inter Miami, the upcoming Major League Soccer team owned by David Beckham and partners.
First Tee parents and children opposed a 2018 referendum that asked Miami’s voters if the city should negotiate a no-bid deal with the soccer group to redevelop Melreese.
In May, one of the soccer group’s partners, MasTec chariman Jorge Mas, agreed to fund the relocation of the First Tee in anticipation of Melreese’s possible redevelopment. The city has not yet approved a lease for the soccer stadium, mall, office park and hotel complex. A deal has not been finalized to relocate the First Tee.
Survivors include Charles De Lucca III, also a First Tee executive.
Funeral services will be held at the Vista Funeral Home on Thursday, Sept. 19 at 2:00 p.m. It will be followed immediately by a burial and a Celebration of Life from 5:30 p.m. until 8 p.m. at the Melreese International Links Golf and Country Club.
According to De Lucca’s wishes, the family asks donations be made to the First Tee of Miami in lieu of flowers.