The First Tee has steadily blossomed into a robust national organization that has impacted, influenced and inspired more than 9 million young golfers.
Locally, however, when Mike Barber took the reigns as The First Tee of the Triad President and CEO in October 2011, the organization was represented at just three locations with only about 300 participants.
Now, under the leadership of Barber, an attorney as well as former Greensboro City Councilman and Guilford County Commissioner, The First Tee of the Triad entered 2015 with representation at 20 locations and more than 1,000 kids participating.
If you include Par-3 Leagues, that number is closer to 1,200, not to mention the thousands of other young people learning The First Tee’s “Nine Core Values” —including traits like honesty, integrity and sportsmanship — in 44 schools around Forsyth and Guilford counties.
Barber said The First Tee of the Triad is now adding locations in Thomasville, Hickory, Salisbury, and a third location in Danville, Va., along with an additional day of programming in Statesville.
“Our growth is significant and it’s because The First Tee of the Triad provides what our parents know their kids need — and that’s the Nine Core Values,” Barber said. “We also provide the nine most important golf fundamentals in order to play a game for life.”
During internationally televised coverage of last year’s Wyndham Championship, PGA TOUR commissioner Tim Finchem called The First Tee of the Triad among the top 5 of the 180 chapters nationwide.
“That was big,” Barber said.
The other big 2015 news for The First Tee of the Triad are plans for a pair of sparkling Golf Learning Centers at Greensboro’s Gillespie Park and Winston Lake in Winston-Salem. Both facilities will be approximately 3,200 square feet and are expected to open in the spring.
Taking The First Tee of the Triad’s impact to an even higher level, along with golf instruction, both learning centers will include classrooms for SAT and ACT preparation classes, as well as financial literacy and other beneficial life skill classes.
“We hope to provide between 200-300 additional kids with SAT and ACT prep classes that would not have otherwise been able to afford them and a similar number exposed to financial literacy through PWC and other great corporate citizens,” Barber said. “There will be a non-smoking curriculum provided by RJ Reynolds, money management and capital support coming from BB&T.
“And the list (of benefactors) goes on,” Barber said.
For making the Winston Lake Learning Center possible, Barber credited Forsyth Country Club head pro John Faidley, whose club plays host to an annual Celebrity Fundraiser, as well as a grant from The Self Family Foundation and benefactors at Winston-Salem’s Old Town Club.
Barber credited Jim Melvin and the Bryan Foundation for the Gillespie Park work. The Wyndham Championship along with Mark Brazil has been instrumental in the growth of The First Tee in the Triad.
At historic Winston Lake — where famed minority professional golfers such as Charlie Sifford, Jim Dent, Lee Elder and Jim Thorpe all played — the new learning center will neighbor the park’s practice range, where The First Tee of the Triad first introduced its local efforts in 2008.
“We consider ourselves to be the home of the First Tee of the Triad,” said Tim Grant, Winston-Salem’s director of recreation and parks since 2003. “Years ago, Winston Lake was the only place African-Americans could play golf here in Forsyth County. Now, it’s probably the most diverse facility we have.”
Winston Lake’s new learning center is a modular building with a 60-foot-wide deck — its site prep work and other construction services contributed by Landmark Builders of the Triad. “From a fund raising standpoint, the greater Winston-Salem community has been remarkably generous,” Barber said. “The Winston Lake facility will be one-of-a-kind in the United States.”
Added Grant: “This building will enhance a number of opportunities, not only for The First Tee, but also for other beginning golfers or people interested in golf at Winston Lake. We are thrilled because we were the first golf course to sign on with The First Tee. It’s been a great relationship. They’ve influenced a lot of lives.”
Grant added that the new learning center is being constructed at the perfect time, after the parks received money through November bonds allowing Winston Lake to redo all its cart paths, replace the original pedestrian bridges and lengthen its driving range.
Last year, Winston Lake completed installation of new and enlarged Diamond Zoysia green complexes, while extensive tree work allowed more scenic views and improved air circulation while also improving site lines.
“We have a jewel of a golf course out there, but through the years we have not had the money to reinvest,” Grant said. “I give a lot of credit to our City Council. They chose to invest in Winston Lake as well as they’ve invested in Reynolds Park, which got new greens two years ago. They are the ones who saw the need and supported it.”
Grant said The First Tee of the Triad’s impact with young people around Winston Lake has been precipitous. “We’ve got kids now in high school playing golf,” he said. “They’ve become more confident, they’ve adapted certain character values and how they carry themselves and how they speak. That is the real exciting part — seeing after several years how these young people have really been impacted.”
At Gillespie Golf Course — a municipal layout located in the heart of the Greensboro rejuvenation area and celebrating its 75th anniversary next year — The First Tee of the Triad is also renovating a building to provide a similar array of learning services.
Gillespie Park’s new learning center will include five target greens, a brand-new putting green, and an adjacent putting and chipping green, including bunkers. “I’ve been around a lot of great golf places, but there are not many short-game practice areas that will rival what we are about to offer our customers and those that want to work on their game,” said Gillespie Park Director of Golf Bob Brooks.
“Golf can be overwhelming,” Brooks said. “You’ve got this little golf ball and you are put out there on 100 acres of land and you’ve got to knock the ball in a four-inch cup.
“We can use the short game area to introduce people to the game by hitting 20-, 30-, 40-yard shots and teach them in a setting that is not so intimidating. It will also allow other golfers to practice and work on their long irons, flop shots, little bump-and-runs and chip shots; you can work on all those things.”
All of The First Tee participants are introduced to the game at the PLAYer Level and from there, participants can advance to higher levels (Par, Birdie, Eagle and Ace) based on their age, attendance, successful completion of assessments, and the demonstration of Life Skills and Golf Skills covered throughout the program.
Brooks said he first noticed The First Tee of the Triad’s impact a few years back when he witnessed students at adjacent Gillespie Park Elementary School enjoying SNAG (“Starting New At Golf”) equipment on the playground.
“I thought to myself: ‘OK this is going to work,’” Brooks said. “The First Tee teaches responsibility, integrity, honesty … and oh, by the way, I learned how to play golf.”
Barber said every young person who successfully completes the Triad program and graduates from the Ace Level is guaranteed a $500 scholarship. “That’s quite an incentive and we are always thrilled to write that check,” he said.
Barber said it’s also a big part of the reason The First Tee of the Triad has produced male and female collegiate golfers, as well as dozens of high school players.
“Our primary emphasis is developing good citizens,” he said, “but over the last few years we have created some pretty good golfers, too.”