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Golf's good fight being fought at the First Tee of Monterey County

The Kids of Salinas, First Tee
Todd Bigelow / Aurora
Jose (center), who has developed into one of the better players at The First Tee in Salinas, gets help with his game from the four full-time paid instructors on staff. More Photos

On a sunny morning in mid-May, The First Tee of Monterey County was abuzz with activity. Bright yellow buses had disgorged a couple of hundred kids from Creekside Elementary, and they were quickly placed into small groups scattered around the facility. On the 7th fairway Al Janess led six two-person teams in a better-ball match. When a pair of fifth-grade girls got up and down from 50 yards for a birdie that won the hole, they couldn’t contain their whoops of delight. Coach Al, a former Navy SEAL and recent cancer survivor, volunteers up to 40 hours a week at The First Tee. Beaming at the girls, he said, “These kids make me feel alive.” On the driving range Mike Orozco, one of TFMC’s four full-time paid instructors, had a group of beginners swatting tennis balls to each other with oversized plastic clubs. In the clubhouse half a dozen volunteers among the kids were writing thank-you notes to recent donors. Nearby, Jonell Baldwin was having a powwow with his fifth-grade teacher, Sue McClellan, and Mike Spiller, TFTMC’s programs coordinator. Jonell is a charming, soft-spoken kid with Harry Potter glasses and a closely cropped Afro. He’s a regular in the after-school program, but the discussion at hand was about whether he would be allowed to play golf with his classmates because he hadn’t completed that morning’s class work. Jonell was asked to explain.

“I started doing my water­colors instead,” he said.

This seemed like a pretty good alibi, but Spiller was unimpressed.

“Which core value could you have used?” he asked.

Jonell’s eyes wandered around the atrium, where the nine tenets of The First Tee are listed. He could have selected honesty, or integrity, or responsibility. A case could also have been made for respect. Finally Jonell spoke.

“Judgment,” he said. “I should have finished my writing assignment before I did anything else.”

He was sent to the clubhouse to finish his schoolwork, looking crushed.

While so much of the emphasis at The First Tee is on citizenship, some darn good golfers are being produced too. Two of the best at TFTMC are Jose Calderon, 12, and Jason Orozco, 10. That afternoon they headed out for a game with Scott Varner, a volunteer coach. Jason loosened up on the 1st tee with a knockoff hybrid that has an unpronounceable Eastern European name. “I got it for five dollars at the Goodwill, and it’s my favorite club,” he said.

Jose’s set is a mishmash of clubs given to him by The First Tee as a reward for his ongoing good comportment. A few years ago Jose was having behavioral problems in school and beginning to run with the wrong crowd. His parents work long, hard hours in the fields and feared Jose was being swallowed up by his neighborhood. “He’s a good boy, but there are many negative influences around him,” his mother, Josefina, said through an interpreter.

Jose had no choice but to be influenced by The First Tee—his school, Virginia Rocca Barton Ele­men­tary, is adjacent to the 2nd hole. He fell hard for the game during his visits to The First Tee and begged his parents to put him in the after-school program. “I was hesitant because I didn’t know anything about golf,” says Jose’s father, Alberto. “I thought it was a rich man’s game.” Jose began visiting TFTMC every afternoon, and his enthusiasm was such that his parents decided they wanted to try the game. Now on the weekends Alberto and Josefina go to the driving range with Jose, as do his two brothers. The parents enjoy getting swing tips from Jose and marvel at his evolution.

“Golf has turned him into a gentleman,” says Josefina. Jose recently received a commendation from his school for earning all A’s and B’s. “The First Tee is a big part of that,” says Alberto. “He does his homework only because that’s how he gets to go play.” Golf has expanded Jose’s world in other ways. During last year’s Nature Valley First Tee Open, three busloads of kids were transported from TFTMC to Pebble Beach for a picnic and a golf clinic. Jose lives less than 20 miles from some of the world’s most spectacular coastlines, but the field trip to Pebble was the first time he could recall seeing the ocean.

Back in East Salinas, a strong, chilly wind had blown in as Jose and Jason set out for their match, but they insisted on playing the back tees, which measure 1,856 yards to a par of 31. They exchanged scorecards on the 1st tee, good practice as both are beginning to play local tournaments. Jason’s action is smooth and on-plane. Jose has a John Daly–esque backswing and generates tremendous clubhead speed for a sixth-grader. Both kids rifled shots to the middle of the green. “They don’t know how hard this game is,” Varner muttered.

As the round wore on, it was clear that both boys have a deep understanding of the nuances of the game—where to stand on the tee box, how to tend the flagstick. They patrolled every green looking for ball marks to fix and were effusive in their praise of each other. Jose didn’t putt well enough to threaten his career best of 31, but as soon as the handshakes on the final green were over, he had something important to ask. He lives in a place where many kids fall into the maw of gangs because they can’t imagine a different future. Were it not for The First Tee, Jose easily could have been one of them. Now he had the most simple and profound of questions for Varner: “Coach, can we please do this again tomorrow?”

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