By Kurt Dusterberg
For most golfers, it’s easy to take the game at face value – the nice weather, the camaraderie, the challenge of making shots. A good round of golf is an invigorating break from the everyday routine.
But to The First Tee organization, the game of golf is something more. It is a platform for childhood character development at nearly 1,000 programming locations across the country. And right now, no one does it better than the Triad.
In just a few years, First Tee of the Triad has gone from 300 participants to more than 1,400 in 2016. The group reaches out to kids from ages seven to 17, teaching core values and a healthy lifestyle. Golf virtues like honesty and sportsmanship are a good place to start.
“We tell them about respect for others, their surroundings and then themselves,” says Mike Barber, president of First Tee of the Triad. “So you respect your playing partners, the golf course, then yourself.”
Although First Tee welcomes all participants, the organization markets to economically challenged communities, going into elementary schools as well as youth enrichment programs like the YMCA and The Boys & Girls Clubs. With 16 courses and instructional facilities serving the mission, First Tee of the Triad has made it easy to access the eight-week Spring and Fall sessions.
“We’re not forcing families to transport their kids a long distance,” Barber says. “We take the character development to the kids.”
And the character lessons seem to work. More than 10 million young people have participated in the program nationwide since 1997, and between 30 percent and 40 percent of the participants come back year-after-year. Swinging a driver or sinking a putt might draw the kids in, but the key is the life skills that are weaved into the program. Managing emotions, setting goals and resolving conflicts become an easy sell within the framework of the sport.
Players begin at an introductory level and progress through four higher levels based on age, attendance, assessments and the demonstration of life skill and golf skills. Early in the program, the young golfers learn self-management. By the later years, they are taking responsibility for career planning. Everyone who graduates the final level is guaranteed a $1,000 scholarship.
“Our program is presented in an organized way, and levels are achieved,” Barber says. “The character development and healthy habits are invaluable.”
During a two-hour after school session, the instructors will talk about a core value like integrity, perseverance or confidence. Later the kids will be asked to do a “bridge,” applying that value to their life in the upcoming week and talking about it when they meet again. But in the meantime, they get a chance to try it out on the golf course. And even then, the message is delivered in a subtle way.
“If you have instructors talking to 7-year-olds about swing plane or angle of attack, that doesn’t mean anything to them,” Barber says. “We let kids explore the game of golf. We might suggest a different way to grip the club, maybe say, ‘Here’s how I grip the club.’ We encourage. We want them to be smiling when they get there and smiling when they leave.”
The program’s success depends on a range of corporate sponsors and volunteers, but none is more important that the Wyndham Championship, the PGA Tour event played in Greensboro.
“It truly is amazing, having the PGA tournament here. It is a key to our success,” Barber says. “We have country clubs in our community that genuinely give back. A huge number of our benefactors are committed to giving back.”
“The Wyndham Championship provides many positive benefits for the Triad and serves as a springboard to help grow and enjoy the game,” said McConnell Golf owner and CEO John McConnell, who grew up on a farm in Virginia playing public golf. “McConnell Golf is a big proponent of youth golf through our MCG Junior Scholarship, which offers instruction, practice and playing opportunities to young golfers that may not have the financial means to practice at first-class facilities.”
The other key is volunteers. The Triad chapter has more than 200 adults who help administer the programs. Barber stresses that you don’t need to be a good golfer – or play the game at all – to help at First Tee. If you can commit to one afternoon per week over the course of 8-10 weeks, your contribution is welcome.
“I do it as a way to give back to the kids,” says volunteer Dave Kessler. “I’m a former teacher and a former coach, and I see this as an opportunity for a taste of golf and how important it could be to their life.”
The variety of coaching backgrounds is useful because many of the character traits that are taught apply to all walks of life.
“One of the first things we teach them is to look you in the eye and shake your hand. That’s a confidence builder for kids,” Barber says. “We have young ladies from the Winston Salem State University basketball team, retirees and even parents who find a way to squeeze it into their busy day.”
The lessons don’t stop with the first impression. Most of the values are at the core of golf’s culture. First Tee participants are taught to dress well, keep score honestly and be courteous and composed on the course. And if they decide to watch a tournament on TV, they quickly learn that the pros walk the walk.
“They are hearing about life skills and character development, and they can look at the professionals and see that they exemplify that. They self-referee. The whole game is based on integrity.”
Spring and Fall sessions cost $75 each, but the Triad chapter covers the cost for those in need. Criteria to qualify is similar to other assistance programs such as the free and reduced school lunch program. No one is turned away because of financial hardship.
“All they need to do is bring a great attitude,” Barber says.