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

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

Reminders about the nine tenets of The First Tee are everywhere, and while the golf is optional -- “The point is to give them a safe, nurturing environment,” says Phillips -- most kids are eventually drawn to the game. <a href="" target="_blank"><strong>More Photos</strong></a>
Todd Bigelow/Aurora

To understand the unique advantages and challenges of The First Tee of Monterey County, it helps to begin with a tour of the area. Start 100 miles down the coast from the Olympic Club, in Pebble Beach, home to world-famous golf courses and $20 million houses. Travel east through the charming town of Monterey, onto the gilded corridor of Highway 68, past the gated entrances to the Jack Nicklaus–designed Pasadera Country Club and Clint Eastwood’s private playground, Tehama Golf Club.

As you continue east and cross the Salinas River, suddenly the dark soil is striped with row crops. This is the world of John Steinbeck, who surely would have found a novel in the brutal lives of the Hispanic workers, stooped over in the fields, picking lettuce and strawberries and broccoli. As you move into the city of Salinas (pop. 150,441), tidy middle-class neighborhoods give way to houses with yellowed lawns and peeling paint. Look carefully, and on fences and street signs you can find graffiti like xiv or 13; these are the markers of warring streets gangs: the Norteños and Sureños. (N, the 14th letter of the alphabet, is favored by the Norteños. The 13th, M, is claimed by the Sureños and is a nod to Mexico, where both gangs have their roots.) In 2009 the streets of Salinas were bloodied by 29 killings, one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. Virtually all the slayings occurred in East Salinas and were gang-related. Aggressive policing and community outreach have curtailed some of the violence, but in East Salinas there remains an abiding wariness. “People are afraid to leave their houses,” says Jose Perez, a high school sophomore who resides in East Salinas. “It’s a tough environment for kids to grow up in.”

In the middle of this neighborhood is the 63-acre campus of The First Tee of Monterey County (TFTMC), with its pastoral nine-hole golf course and a gleaming clubhouse with a black marble atrium and 15 shiny computers. The First Tee has been a safe haven since its founding in 2004, but in the last couple of years it has taken on a larger role in the community through a partnership with East Salinas’s Alisal Union School District. Every morning buses paid for by The First Tee stop in front of one of 11 elementary schools to bring fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to the campus for two hours of golf instruction and inculcate the nine “core values” that are the backbone of The First Tee’s mission. After school the buses ferry up to 100 kids from across the district back to The First Tee, where they get a free healthy snack and a comfortable setting in which to do their homework and spend time with friends. There is also organized golf instruction for players of varying experience, but that is optional. “Whether or not a kid touches a golf club is not that important to us,” says Barry Phillips, ­TFTMC’s executive director. “The point is to give them a safe, nurturing environment. But even those who say they’re not interested in golf, once they see the other kids having so much fun, they’re drawn to it.”

Education is emphasized—the kids can’t go to the golf course or range until they’ve completed their homework. Through a partnership with Cal State–Monterey Bay and Hartnell College, tutors are always on hand. Other role models abound. Tall and slender, with the beginnings of a wispy mustache, Jose is a regular after-school presence. When he’s not honing his athletic swing, he can be found in the clubhouse playfully interacting with the younger children. “A lot of the kids I grew up with are in gangs or in jail,” he says. “They’ve made really bad decisions. Being here makes me feel good about myself. There’s a family atmosphere, where we all look out for each other. I definitely feel a responsibility to set a good example.”

Every two weeks more than 2,000 kids pass through The First Tee of Monterey County. In all, nearly 6,000 “members” between the ages of four and 17 use the facility. It is located only a couple of blocks from the de facto demilitarized zone between Norteño and Sureño territories, but in eight years the only on-campus crime has been a robbery of the pro shop till. “The community respects what we’re trying to do here, even the gangsters,” says Pauline Nocon, a high school freshman. “There’s a big white sign out front, but there is never any graffiti.”

Pauline is one of The First Tee’s quintessential success stories. She lives in East Salinas in a modest-sized house shared by her parents, two grandparents, three aunts, two uncles and three cousins, but she is on scholarship at Monterey’s York School, an elite prep academy with a tuition of $26,375. The First Tee was instrumental in getting her to York—she researched the school on the clubhouse computers and perfected her application with the help of the on-site tutors. Pauline’s parents didn’t know she was applying until she had to get their signature for the completed application. “This place gave me the confidence and skills I needed to achieve my dreams,” says Pauline, who has been a First Tee regular since the fifth grade. She hopes to go into law and has already targeted Harvard for her undergraduate studies. Stanford is the backup plan.

It takes a substantial investment to alter the trajectories of kids like Jose and Pauline. The annual operating budget of The First Tee of Monterey County is $2.4 million. Ten percent of that comes from an annual grant from the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which runs the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and The First Tee Open, a Champions tour event played at Pebble that pairs the pros with kids selected from First Tee facilities around the country. Another $275,000 or so comes from the pro shop—the nine-hole course and range are open to the ­public—and other revenue streams, leaving nearly $2 million a year that must be raised through donations. And yet The First Tee of Monterey County’s strategic plan calls for a doubling of the number of kids it will reach by 2015. “How are we going to do it?” asks Steve John, TFTMC’s president and CEO. “It’s pretty simple: fund-raise, fund-raise, fund-raise. Followed by more fund-raising.”

This is doable in a well-heeled community that is passionate about golf and home to brand-name resorts that are at the heart of a robust tourism industry. But Monterey County is not the only First Tee with designs on expansion. The other 198 chapters have a mandate to grow, fueled by The First Tee’s year-old national campaign to raise $100 million. (Nearly three quarters of that has already been pledged.) For all the progress being made in East Salinas, it raises a larger question: Is The First Tee model sustainable?

Seven months after Tiger Woods’s arrival as a cross-cultural superstar at the 1997 Masters, The First Tee was born under the aegis of the World Golf Foundation. It was lost on no one that Woods had been raised on ratty public courses, just as the boardroom midwife to the birth of The First Tee, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, had learned the game on scruffy military tracks. From the beginning The First Tee had the financial backing of the sport’s most powerful institutions: the PGA Tour, USGA, PGA of America, LPGA and the Masters among them.

Woods was supposed to change the face of golf, and here was the first national organization dedicated to bringing the game, and its values, to disadvantaged kids. The money poured in, and heartwarming First Tee commercials became ubiquitous. The First Tee of Monterey County was created as a passion project of the area’s golf aristocracy. Leading the way was Ollie Nutt, who as the top guy at the Monterey Peninsula Foundation vetted the amateurs who are invited to the Crosby Clambake. Nutt’s friends Peter Ueberroth and Clint Eastwood were among the early benefactors, with the latter signing on as a board member.

By 2005 the 200th First Tee had been christened. The rapid expansion was not without its challenges. The home office in St. Augustine, Fla., helps defray operating costs in the first three years, but after that, each chapter is expected to be self-sustaining­. The adults who populate The First Tee campuses may love golf and be dedicated to helping kids, but that doesn’t mean they are cagey businessmen or adept fund-raisers, which can be a problem, given that the chapters generate little revenue. The First Tee of Monterey County charges kids $130 a year to be members, but the vast majority are on “scholarship,” which is to say, they pay nothing. “We’ll never turn a kid away because of money,” says Phillips. “Everyone is welcome, and we’ll worry about how to pay for it later.” The Alisal school district doesn’t pay a dime to TFTMC.

When the recession hit in late 2007, funding for many First Tee chapters began to dry up. The response in Monterey County was to form the Big Z Sales Club, named in honor of the late John Zoller, TFTMC’s founding chairman. Big Z brings together three dozen pillars of the golf community, members of glittering private clubs such as Cypress Point, Monterey Peninsula Country Club, Tehema and the Preserve. Though the Big Zers are rarely seen in East Salinas, they have been relentless in raising money by garnering individual donations and throwing big-ticket fund-raisers such as last year’s one-day tournament at Monterey Peninsula, which raised more than $100,000. Soliciting wine for a silent auction at the event, an e-mail implored Big Z members to “go deep into your cellar and pull out the good stuff.” No exception was made for anyone without a cellar.

The First Tee of Monterey County has also been aggressive about cutting costs. A recent decision to subcontract the maintenance on the golf course will save $50,000 a year. Representatives of TFTMC spent much of 2011 negotiating with the city of Salinas for a reduction on its lease. At a December city council meeting a handful of kids offered emotional testimony about the impact of The First Tee on their lives, leading the council to unanimously approve slashing the annual rent from $575,000 to $125,000. “Every dollar is important to a city like ours,” says Salinas mayor Dennis Donohue, “but it’s critical that we are a good partner with The First Tee. It is the largest and most successful youth-services program in the county. The gang problem we face is a tough one. The First Tee is one program that gets results.”

Of course, not every First Tee has Monterey County’s fund-raising reach or political savvy. In recent years First Tees have been shuttered in Detroit; Jacksonville; Portland; Knoxville, Tenn.; Albany, Ga., and Columbus, Ga., among other places. This is a sensitive subject at The First Tee’s national headquarters, and CEO Joe Louis Barrow Jr. is quick to point out that Portland and Knoxville both had two facilities and that in each city they were “consolidated for programming reasons, not because of the bottom line.” But Barrow does allow, “You will see more contraction in the future, and we think that will be healthy.”

With a nod to its precarious financial position, The First Tee launched last year’s Campaign for 10 Million Young People. The related fund-raising—$72.8 million and counting—provides what Barrow calls “strategic reserves” to help struggling chapters. A new matching program, underwritten by Johnson & Johnson, will allow the home office to give each chapter one dollar for every two it raises. More money for more buses means TFTMC can reach more kids. Beginning in the fall the program will be expanded to include third-graders in the Alisal district, which is applauded by law enforcement. “We’re finding that to effectively keep kids out of the gangs, you have to start much earlier than was previously thought,” says commander Stan Cooper of the Monterey County Joint Gang Task Force. “If you wait until sixth grade, a lot of them are already lost forever.”

The fund-raising campaign was announced at last year’s First Tee Open, during which Barrow challenged TFTMC leadership to think big. The result is ongoing discussions with Cal State–Monterey Bay to put a First Tee facility on school-owned land east of Monterey. “It’s going to happen,” says Steve John. “We’re working on the details.” The tentative plan is for three golf holes, a large driving range and a complex of classrooms. This facility would be a 30-minute drive from the current TFTMC campus and reach an entirely different community, one much closer to the donor base. This complicates the financial picture in East Salinas. Says Nick Nelson, TFTMC’s deputy executive director, “We have an interesting situation in that 90 percent of the people who use our facility are from Salinas, but 90 percent of the money that supports it is from the Monterey Peninsula. Our challenge is to get this community right here to offer more support.”

The key is to tap the agriculture companies in the Salinas Valley, and the sales pitch being made to the ag barons is that most of those who use The First Tee are the children of their employees. The First Tee is also reaching out to its East Salinas neighbors. In April a parents advisory committee was formed, led by TFTMC staffer Irma Lopez. Eight parents attended the first meeting and 13 came to the second one. “The energy in the room has been great,” Lopez says. “The parents have a lot of interesting ideas on how we can improve things.”

One of Lopez’s missions is to generate interest for TFTMC’s summer camps, which are priced at $30 a week. “Anyone who has kids knows what a bargain that is,” she says. “But these parents are used to getting things [from The First Tee] for free. I tell the parents you still have to support what we’re doing. The fact is, we can’t always count on someone else paying the bills around here.”

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?”