Golf's future looks bright as game's legends team with juniors at Pebble Beach

Golf’s future looks bright as game’s legends team with juniors at Pebble Beach

Fred Funk, left, with his junior partner Karthikeya Menta.
Chris Condon/PGA Tour/Getty Images

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Earlier last week, Gary Player emerged from the Terrace Lounge at the Lodge at Pebble Beach, climbed a couple of stairs into the lobby and stopped cold when a charming teenager called his name. Caroline Ellington reacted to seeing the Black Knight the way many teenagers would respond to bumping into the Jonas Brothers. She was practically giggling when Player wheeled around and began to chat. I was kind of thrilled myself. An actual kid with this kind of appreciation for golf history? I’m thinking that if there are more Caroline Ellingtons out there, golf’s future is in good hands.

Of course, Ellington is no ordinary teenager. She’s one of 78 juniors who qualified to play alongside Champions Tour stars in the Walmart First Tee Open at Pebble Beach. A recent graduate from New Bern High School in eastern North Carolina, Ellington and her 2.3 index emerged from The First Tee of the Triangle, one of hundreds of First Tee programs across the country — and the world — that have been prime vehicles for introducing kids to golf. Just as importantly, the program inculcates values meant to bridge golf and life lessons. What a job the program does. These kids seem too good to be true. So does the event itself.

The format is simple enough. Pair a Champions Tour player and First Tee junior, better ball-low score wins. For the youngsters, however, getting into the tournament is what’s tough. It’s open only to juniors aged 14-18, who are active participants at First Tee chapters. From there, the selection process identifies participants who have integrated life skills learned through The First Tee into other aspects of their life. Participants are evaluated both on-course and off, via interviews, essays and a 36-hole golf-proficiency event.

A committee of representatives from The First Tee, Walmart and golf industry insiders judged participants on the following criteria: Proficiency on the golf course; personal interviews; life skills curriculum knowledge; personal essay describing how they use their experiences at The First Tee in their daily life; involvement and longevity with The First Tee; summary of community involvement, awards/recognitions and extracurricular activities and decorum. Only 30 percent of the score is based on golf results.

I’ll admit — I didn’t know much about The First Tee specifics before I ventured to Pebble Beach this week. Life lessons, golf lessons, privileged and underprivileged kids, yadda, yadda yadda … You know what? What takes place here should thaw even the most cynical hearts.

At the Legends and Leaders Wednesday night banquet, nine guest speakers took to the podium. Each spoke on one of the nine Core Values that define the First Tee. Ellington, soon on her way to North Carolina State on a scholarship, talked about confidence. Preceding her was Jay Haas, on courtesy. After Ellington, Bill Murray entertained — and yes, enlightened — on honesty. Murray stole the show, as usual. He first apologized, claiming he thought he had been asked to speak about clemency — and thought he had a ticket out. Later, in a poignant moment, he spoke to all the liars out there — that all of us are liars if we’re not true to ourselves, especially if you cheat yourself out of the best life that you’re capable of living. Nancy Lopez concluded the remarks with her take on sportsmanship — and took Murray to task for stealing her name badge.

So what did I learn? First, this event deserves a lot more ink than it gets. Yes — it goes up against a FedEx Cup playoff event in Boston, where Tiger and Phil are both playing, as well as opening weekend in college football, U.S. Open tennis, kids back to school — lots of distractions. But come on — this is Pebble Beach — in sunshine. The senior set is genuinely thrilled to be back competing on one of the best golf courses in the world. At the Legends and Leaders dinner, dozens of players dined with kids, exchanged tips, life stories, autographs and photos. There was no squirming to be had — these guys were genuinely enjoying themselves — and genuinely giving back. Most stayed until the very end.

The concept is so cool, with such a crush of smiling faces, it almost didn’t feel like a real golf tournament. Imagine your Little League kids qualifying to play a hardball game with the starters from the 1983 All-Star game — where prize money is involved. Yet, here it is, Sunday afternoon, at wind-blown, crystal-clear Pebble and Jeff Sluman, Mark O’Meara and Loren Roberts are grinding away in the gusts.

I’m blown away by how skilled and composed these juniors are, by how many terrific shots they hit. I would have been a quivering bowl of Jell-O paired in this format. These kids are ice. On Friday, I watched 17-year-old Sara Diaz, a silky-swinging 8-handicapper from The First Tee of San Antonio, stroke a frightening putt from the back-left side of the hourglass-shaped 17th green to the front-right — a roller coaster 60-footer that she cozied to three feet. She dropped the par putt, then practically skipped off to the 18th tee, joined by her caddie, 13-year-old Elsa, who’s also her sister. I’d challenge players on any tour to match that feat on a regular basis.

“The girls keep each other loose,” said their father, Alfonso, a chiropractor, who has helped hone Sara’s graceful, perfectly balanced swing. Sara ripped three splendid shots, giving her a birdie putt for her and her pro Blaine McAllister, then trotted over with a huge grin. “See that house, dad?” pointing to a handsome stone edifice along Pebble’s 18th fairway. “You can buy it for $25 million.” Laughing, she returned to her sister, her golf and her competition at Pebble Beach.

I had to smile. These kids are good. This event is good. Golf may be down, but given what I’ve witnessed this week, it’s far from out.