“Golf is the closest game to the game we call life. You get bad breaks from good shots. You get good breaks from bad shots. But you have to play the ball where it lies.”
Bobby Jones was on to something, and The First Tee knows exactly what: Golf can be a conduit to learn life skills, to build character, to instill values that you will carry with you for a lifetime regardless of whether or not you pick up a golf club, and to succeed as a person.
This is the 19th year of The First Tee program, and more than 10.5 million young people have been involved in it nationwide. In Greenville, at four courses, in 45 elementary schools and at the Kroc Center, thousands of youngsters are learning to play golf and navigate life at the same time.
The program is not what you might expect. A visitor to a Wednesday-night session at Green Valley Country Club might be surprised to see the 12-15 players wielding colorful plastic clubs with oversized heads, whacking tennis balls into targets placed in front of the holes on the club’s pristine practice green. Small pockets of players work on different skill sets. Some with regular clubs and balls; others with sticks, shag bags and other aids. It may be weeks before some of these kids get their hands on a golf club.
“Our core mission is a youth development program that just happens to use golf as the mechanism to deliver the message,” says Molly Perkins, the group’s program director and only paid employee.
“Some people will come to The First Tee and they want their kid be the next Tiger Woods. They might be disappointed, and some people get mad, but once they see what we’re doing everyone kind of falls in love with the mission and what we stand for.”
Golf is a unique sport and, as such, it is uniquely positioned to teach the life skills and values that are intrinsic in it. For example, there are no umpires in the game. Golfers keep their own scores, call their own penalties. Bobby Jones, the founder of Augusta National and an icon of the sport, famously lost the US Open in 1925 when he called a penalty on himself that even his opponent didn’t think had occurred.
“That’s golf,” says Perkins. “We have nine core values, and we work them into the golf activities. When we are doing activities that are harder, we talk about perseverance. When we are going over a scorecard and talking about scoring, we talk about honesty and integrity. Whatever our lesson plan is, the core value correlates with what’s going on with the kids.”
“Success in golf depends less on strength of body than upon strength of mind and character.”
Participants are grouped by age into one of five groups, starting with the player level for kids 7 and 8 and working up to Ace level for 15 and up. Matt Sharkey, a former tour pro who played on the Nationwide and Nike tours, and has had two PGA tour appearances, is a First Tee coach. “There is a progression that kids have to complete to move on to the next level. You can have a great golfer who is 7 years old, but he still needs to go through the process,” Sharkey says. “They’ve got to show that they understand the nine core values and healthy habits before they move up.”
The First Tee has put together an impressive program, and although most coaches are volunteers (Greenville has five), it’s not their golf skills that make them successful. As with the program itself, it’s their mastery of the mission.
“It doesn’t hurt to have a golf background,” says Sharkey, “but I’ve had to really immerse myself in the lesson plans and learn what’s important to the program. They want to create the next great person, not the next Jordan Spieth.”
Confidence and perseverance
Willie Coleman is among those progressing through the program. At 15, he’s one of the older players. He’s also a very good golfer already – shooting scores in the low 80s. Quiet, well-spoken and hardworking, Willie’s looking forward to getting out to play some more at Legacy Pines in Mauldin. He’s offered to do some work on the course or around the clubhouse for pro Tommy Biershenk in exchange for some opportunities to play. “I started playing four years ago,” Willie says, “but I got real serious about a year ago.”
Does he have aspirations to play college golf? “Not sure yet,” he says modestly.
Laura Maurer, a 2013 Mauldin High School graduate and now Columbia College golfer, and fellow Mauldin teammate Ashley Czarnecki, who will play for Wofford this year, are both Greenville First Tee graduates.
Mauer started with golf and The First Tee in the seventh grade and stayed in the program through her senior year in high school. She participated in a First Tee leadership conference in Arizona and in her last years with the group assisted the coaches in working with the kids. Today, she volunteers with the First Tee in Columbia as a coach.
“College golf was always my goal, and I am honored to have met it,” says Mauer. But that is not her life’s work. She is a speech language pathology major at Columbia, and is minoring in leadership.
In her college playing career, she frequently meets other golfers who are First Tee alums. Her putter cover has the nine Core Values imprinted on it, “so I always remember.”
The biggest thing Mauer learned from the program? “It has given me confidence to go up and shake hands and introduce myself to new people. It’s also helped me develop perseverance.”
As a coach now, she views the program through a different lens. “Now I realize how applicable everything The First Tee does is outside of golf.
“I love the diverse population that it brings together. You learn to respect and form friendships with very different people through the common love and passion of golf,” she says.
Although millions of youngsters have participated in the First Tee program, it’s perhaps a testament to the organization’s goal of building great people, not necessarily training great golfers, that few of them have chosen a path of professional golf.
This year, Scott Langley, a First Tee of St. Louis participant, became the first alum of the program to make it to the PGA Tour.
“The First Tee taught me values that still guide me today. And that may be the best golf lesson I ever had.”
-Scott Langley, PGA Tour Professional
Who can participate: Any child 7 or older of any ability level
What does it cost: $75 for each seven-week session. There are three sessions through the year.
Where are sessions held: Green Valley Country Club, Legacy Pines (formerly Hejaz Shrine Golf Course), Carolina Golf, Carolina Springs. In the summer, Crosswinds will be added.
How to register: Sign up online at thefirstteegreenville.org
Get more information: Contact program director Molly Perkins at [email protected]
The Nine Core Values
Building a good golf game can also build a great character
Golf is unique from other sports in that players regularly call penalties on themselves and report their own scores.
Golf is a game of etiquette and composure. Players are responsible for their conduct on the course even when others may not be looking.
Players must know and abide by the rules of golf and be able to conduct themselves in a kind and respectful manner towards others even in a competitive game.
In golf it is important to show respect for oneself, playing partners, fellow competitors, the golf course, and for the honor and traditions of the game.
Confidence plays a key role in the level of play. Players can increase confidence in their abilities by being positive and focusing on something they are doing well regardless of the outcome.
It is up to players to keep score, repair divots, rake bunkers, repair ball marks on the green, and keep up with the pace of play.
To succeed in golf, players must continue through bad breaks and their own mistakes, while learning from past experiences.
A round should begin and end with a handshake between competitors. Players also should be still and quiet while others are preparing and performing a shot.
Good judgment comes into play when deciding on strategy, club selection, when to play safe and when to take a chance, the type of shot players consider, and healthy choices on and off the course.
Source: The First Tee
Fundraiser: First Tee Kentucky Derby Viewing Party
WHERE: Event space, ONE building, 1 N. Main St., Greenville
RESERVATIONS: [email protected]
Guests are invited to dress appropriately for the Derby – hats, colorful jackets and ties. Cocktails and menu by Rick Erwin’s. Silent auction and an opportunity to learn more about the organization’s mission and programs.