Tour and News

First Tee, changing kids' lives since 1997, embarks on ambitious new era

Photo: John Biever/SI

This week Pebble Beach will once again host the First Tee Open.

This week brings one of my favorite tournaments, the First Tee Open played at Pebble Beach. The inspired format pairs 78 world-weary Champions tour warriors with wide-eyed kids who learned the game (and a lot more) at a First Tee facility, of which there are 750 across the country. It's always cute to watch these crotchety pros be thoroughly charmed by their young amateur partners, who invariably have impeccable manners, sophisticated golf knowledge and an inspiring personal story.

To be chosen for the tournament, these youngsters go through a rigorous interview process, and the trip to Pebble is a once-in-a-lifetime reward for all of their hard work and good deeds. For everyone else, it's a chance to celebrate the First Tee and its success stories. We've all seen the commercials, and it's easy to roll your eyes at the endless talk of "core values," but the First Tee can and does impact young people in a powerful way. Now the program's already impressive reach is about to get a lot bigger.

Since the First Tee's inception in 1997, some five million kids have benefited from programs across the country. "The most important investment a society can make is in its young people," Joe Louis Barrow Jr., the executive director of the First Tee, told me in a recent interview. It is with that simple, profound mission that the First Tee will announce on Thursday morning in Pebble Beach a new campaign to reach 10 million more kids by the end of 2017.

To reach this goal, the First Tee has set an ambitious target of raising $100 million by the end of 2012. Barrow hopes the new capital campaign will allow the First Tee to double its number of locations, but he also has a broader vision: "We want to move what we do to where the young people are."

The fund raising will allow the First Tee to train staff, provide materials and offer grants to YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, and other youth development organizations. Currently, 4,000 elementary schools are affiliated with the First Tee; the goal is to exceed 10,000. First Tee is also pushing to create new "program locations" at existing golf courses to give the kids more access to real, green-grass experiences.

I've seen the First Tee's impact firsthand, and not just during a splashy tournament week. When the First Tee Open was created six years ago, organizers needed a local facility to serve as a beneficiary and a beacon. They chose a site 15 miles inland from Pebble Beach in Salinas, the town where I grew up and now live. The First Tee of Monterey County has turned into a very impressive facility, with a large, comfy clubhouse boasting brand-new computers and tutors who are always available to help with after-school homework. The nine-hole executive course is stellar, and there's a spacious driving range.

But what makes this First Tee facility so valuable is its setting — a world away from Pebble Beach, in an economically-depressed part of town that is overwhelmingly Hispanic. Many neighborhood kids have become trapped in the destructive cycle of gang violence. Golf would seem an unlikely vehicle for reaching these kids, but thanks to aggressive outreach, the First Tee of Monterey County has become an important part of the community.

By partnering with one of the local school districts, the First Tee of Monterey County brings 2,000 kids a week to its facility to learn the game and have some fun in the sun. Due to budget cutbacks, this is the only form of P.E. that many of these children get to enjoy. I've been around for a few of these sessions, and it's impossible not to smile at the joy that invariably comes with getting the ball airborne for the first time. First Tee also has a robust after-school program so the students have a safe place to play and learn while their parents are at work. Perhaps most important of all, an army of caring volunteers and very dedicated staff tend to the kids' emotional needs as well as their golf swings.

In recent months I've gotten to know an elementary school student named ​Jose Calderon, whose parents eek out a living wage by picking strawberries in the fields that surround Salinas. Jose has a charismatic smile and an athletic golf swing. (When we played a nine-hole match he borrowed my driver and, choking up almost to the graphite, roped a series a perfect drives.)

Jose comes to the First Tee every afternoon with other classmates from Virginia Barden Elementary School, which abuts the facility's golf course. "The people here make me feel good about myself," Jose once told me. (Jose and the other kids at the Monterey County chapter get to occasionally test their games at the swank Pasadera Country Club in Monterey, a Jack Nicklaus Signature design.)

He's a sweet kid, but according to his parents, who spoke through a translator, Jose used to have trouble channeling his energy at school. Golf has given him a new discipline and determination that have carried over to his studies and behavior at school, his parents said. In a neighborhood where it can be easy to lose hope, Jose has a sunny outlook on the future. "I want to live a good life and make my parents proud of me and make the people here (at the First Tee) proud of me," he says.

The First Tee's new fundraising initiative received its first check this week courtesy of Nature Valley, the First Tee Open's title sponsor. But that wasn't the pre-tournament highlight — Andrea Wong provided that. A 16-year-old with a 1 handicap, Andrea will tee it up in the First Tee Open with Taiwan's Chien Soon Lu, who nearly won last week's Montreal Championship. But that's not why she was nervous. "My Mandarin is a little rusty," she said with a laugh. Andrea was selected to speak at Wednesday's pairings party, and she dazzled with her confidence and eloquence. In reference to the core values the First Tee teaches, Andrea told a room full of players and dignitaries, "I think the value 'courtesy' is the most underrated. To me, courtesy goes beyond simply having good manners. To be courteous also means to act with kindness and compassion."

She's a shining example of that; having come up through the First Tee of San Francisco, Andrea now volunteers as an instructor at a couple of facilities in Northern California.

"It's funny, people say it's nice of me to help the kids, but really they're helping me," Andrea said. "I've learned so much about being a leader, being a role model, being compassionate and overcoming challenges. Being a part of the First Tee has made me look at the world in a different way."

Andrea, a senior-to-be, hopes to earn a college golf scholarship to help her family financially, but she doesn't dream of playing professionally. Her aspirations are more community oriented.

"I've gotten so much from the First Tee," she said, "I want to keep helping others. It feels really good to give back."

This is the essence of the First Tee. It's exciting to think that its power to affect young people will only continue to grow in the years ahead.

More From the Web

More Tour and News