I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I fell in love with the Nature Valley First Tee Open, the Champions tour event that was conducted last week. It might have been while watching a U.S. Open champ read putts at Pebble Beach for a young African-American woman from a rough part of Atlanta, in this case Scott Simpson and Najae Butler, my playing partners during a spectacularly sunny Saturday morning. It could have been the day before, at Poppy Hills, when I couldn't help but marvel at a teenager in my group, Derrick Ow, a good player and an excellent conversationalist who happens to have autism. For sure, I was moved during a dinner earlier in the week when the 81 kids from around the country gathered to hear First Tee alums share their own stories; the words were so powerful that Ben Crenshaw said, "Seeing the character of these young people gives me hope for the future of this country." I had certainly fallen hard for the tourney long before the wildly entertaining final round, which featured Hall of Famers Tom Watson, Vijay Singh and Colin Montgomerie in a dogfight with likable grinder Esteban Toledo. Gloriously, the underdog won.
On the national level the First Tee has been around since 1997, and I certainly understand if you, the fan at home, are weary from the saccharine commercials that are ubiquitous on golf broadcasts. But it's impossible to be cynical when you get to see the kids up close. Their games are quite advanced—I would sell my soul to drive it like Najae—but what stands out is how thoroughly these teens and tweens have absorbed the core values that are the foundation of the First Tee's efforts to build character through golf. They are impossibly polite and sincere, and some are world-class schmoozers; the tournament provided each kid with business cards featuring his or her email address, and Derrick spent the week pressing his on many of the pro-am participants, which skew toward the ruling class. "I made some nice relationships and built some good connections," says Derrick, a senior at Salinas (Calif.) High who dreams of being a sports broadcaster. "Everyone says networking is an important thing. Who knows, one of the people here might be a future president of the United States. Or at least maybe they can give me a job someday."
This was the 12th edition of the FTO, and Simpson, the 2006 champ, is hardly alone among the pros in calling it his favorite event on tour. The buy-in is so absolute that Tom Lehman brought six amateurs with him this year, trumping Gary Hallberg's four. "The joy these kids play with is contagious," says Simpson, 60. "When you've been out here as long as us [pros], it can feel like a job. Watching them play, it kind of returns you to your roots and reminds you how much you love the game." At Poppy, his partner Najae drew a plugged lie in a bunker on four dispiriting occasions. Each time, Simpson was there to offer advice and encouragement. "He told me which club to hit," says Najae, "how to put it in my stance, how to hack at it. I finally got one up-and-down, making about a 20-foot putt. The look on his face was great!"
Everyday golfers can share in these moments because of the FTO's unique format. Each foursome features a pro and a junior along with two amateurs, leading to tournaments within a tournament featuring pro-junior and pro-am leader boards. The FTO should be on the bucket list of every golfer, making memories while supporting the worthiest of causes. If you're lucky, it will be as transformative an experience as it was for Najae, who missed the pro-junior cut and thus became a spectator on Sunday. "It was awkward to be outside the ropes," she says. "Pebble Beach is a different universe from where I live, but somehow I felt at home here."