"First Tee Golf"

Hit by intentional hit, with concrete flying and sweat building, Matt Nelson is proving the 10-year worth of the PGA Tour’s The First Tee Program every day.

For as he completed his summer job of pounding concrete on job sites near his Northwest Indiana home, Nelson, one of the first graduates of The First Tee Program, is preparing for his second year of college, on his way to earning a degree in physical therapy.

It’s a destination made possible in part by The First Tee, an unique junior golf and life skills leadership program celebrating its 10th anniversary in 2007-08.

“They (The First Tee) gave me more confidence than I gave myself,” he said. “They gave me leadership skills and responsibility and made me realize I could do this thing more than I thought I could”

As The First Tee celebrates its first decade of success and changed lives, Nelson stands as a living, breathing, concrete pounding example of its success in action.

“There were a lot of skeptics when we started that didn’t think this thing would be here for 10 years,” said The First Tee Executive Director Joe Louis Barrow. “We have clearly exceeded our expectations and have begun to think what The First Tee will mean in 2015 and 2020.”

The First Tee, which was founded on Nov. 13, 1997 with former President George H. Bush as its honorary chairman, and direct support from the five largest governing bodies in golf, is rolling into its second decade on an upswing of momentum.

It currently has more than 250 chapters in 46 states and five international locations, and has taught the game of golf and its nine core values to nearly 1 million kids since it started.

Just as importantly, since its opened, not one First Tee Chapter has folded or closed.

Directors like Nancy Bender wouldn’t let that happen.

Bender opened the first First Tee Chapter in late 1997 in the unlikely golf capital of Valparaiso, Indiana. She has seen Nelson and hundreds of kids go through the Valparaiso First Tee Program at the Creekside Golf Course and Learning Center.

After a decade of work, the LPGA Professional, friend, mentor and coach remains more convinced than ever about the worth of the program.

“Sharp kids with a lot of advantages are always going to find a way to college with or without this program,” she said, “But the First Tee exists for people like Matt Nelson who were going in the wrong direction and used the First Tee to get back on the right road.”

A self-described trouble-maker and “goofball”, Nelson became involved with the Valparaiso Parks Department and ultimately, Bender, when he was 13-14 years old.

Basketball, not golf was his game, but he was intrigued by her guidance and the promise of the new sport.

“Back then, I was like any kid, I just wanted to smack the ball hard. Being on the golf course and in the (First Tee) program I knew I needed the skills this program reinforces.

“My grades were not great. I was having problems and things started slipping. Nancy required me to bring in my report card to her office and that’s when I decided I really could turn things around. It felt incredible.”

Arkansas native Kenneth Patterson felt incredible for a long time in sports, but it was basketball, not golf, which held his attention as he felt destined for stardom in the NBA.

“I didn’t play golf. Nobody in my family did. I had never heard of the First Tee, and the only golf I knew anything about was the video games my aunt had,” Patterson said.

He became attracted to his local First Tee program through a driving range where he had tried and failed to get a job in the past.

“I started out at the par (basic) level and pretty soon was at eagle (advanced) and discovered it was a fun thing to do. I’m not sure where I would be without it.”

Patterson began college on a basketball scholarship, but when a coaching change and an injury limited his hoops dreams, he already had a back-up plan.

“Ginger Brown, who was the First Tee director in Arkansas, said ‘We are going to try and get you a college scholarship,’” Patterson says.

He wound up with a full golf scholarship to Ouachita University, an hour from his home. He hopes to take his education into possibly a full-time job in the golf industry, but always wants to give back to the First Tee Program, which lifted him higher than he thought possible.

“I love working with kids, because I gain experience, but also because I know they are watching. If I slam a club back into the bag after a bad shot, they are all watching me.”

Now, his parents who didn’t know or care anything about the game of golf can’t get enough.

“My parents watch golf on TV more than I do,” Patterson said

Chris Hawkins, currently in Mexico attending a summer-long Spanish language immersion program, eagerly feeds quarters into a pay phone on a busy street corner in Mexico to answer questions about the impact the First Tee program has had on his life.

“The First Tee has opened a lot of doors for me, like being here (Mexico),” he said. “It has given me experience in public speaking, and got me motivated for good grades in a safe environment.”

Hawkins got involved in the Atlanta First Tee at the age of 14. This led to him to becoming one of the inaugural class of First Tee Scholars, earning a full scholarship to Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky.  Hawkins recently graduated from college in May of 2007, along with fellow First Tee Scholar Steven Outlaw.

“I’ve got great experiences and I’ve seen life values through the First Tee,” Hawkins said.

He is looking for a job in the golf industry in 2008 and plans to give back to those who have given to him.

Tod Leiweke, the initial First Tee Director, now the President of the Seattle Seahawks, knows these stories and many more, but still shakes his head with the progress of the program.

“The first couple of years we had a lot of momentum, but we needed a program to pin it all down. When you look back at the program, you realize it was a heck of an idea and still is.”

Leiweke said it’s especially gratifying to see all the success stories when he remembers the humble early days of the organization.

“In the first years, our offices were also the “will call drop off” location for the PLAYERS CHAMPIONSHIP. It seems like we also had one of the few restrooms in the area which meant we always had a steady stream of people coming through there.”

Leiweke and his small staff helped fill orders and told people about the First Tee, a revolutionary new junior golf and life skills program, often to puzzling looks.

“I remember a guy came out of the restroom one day and he very pointedly told me we were out of toilet paper and I needed to get that fixed. I was thinking, ‘boy, this First Tee program, has a long way to go.’”

That’s what makes the success of the hard-working Nelson and dozens like him so impressive. Far from a PGA superstar in the making, Nelson is just working on finishing his first year in college, partially using the Dollars for Scholars money he got through the First Tee.

“I’d like to play golf all the time. I think I’ve only played three times this year, but I have to work to get through school,” Nelson said.

“In the past, I could have thought, ‘I don’t have the skills for this.  I’ll just blow it off.’ But I know what I’m capable of. I know I can do it. Nancy and the First Tee saw me as a leader. They gave me confidence. That’s all I needed.”

Which is probably the best 10-year anniversary present anybody involved in this remarkable junior golf and life skills organization could ask for.

Sidebar

After 10 years worth of First Tee success stories, it would be hard to point out a single individual who is most responsible for the decade of golf and life skills prominence.

But if you’re compiling a top 10 list, it would be impossible to leave out Georgetown College President, Dr. William H. Crouch. Jr.

Invited to speak at a 2001 First Tee National Meeting, Crouch met several First Tee participants and was so impressed by these young people that he offered to give one First Tee member a full scholarship to Georgetown every year.

Not stopping there, he also got on the phone and personally encouraged dozens of his fellow college presidents, urging them to do the same thing for the First Tee Program.

He raised $2.3 million dollars in scholarships in the first 60 days, and the First Tee Scholars Program was born.

The first seven First Tee Scholars were admitted to various universities in 2003 and the first four graduated with college degrees in May of 2007. Chris Hawkins and Steven Outlaw graduated from Georgetown College, Kenneth Patterson from Ouachita University, and Angelika Huguley from Kansas State.

“I couldn’t believe the First Tee was paying for my college education, but I’ve learned so much from them,” Huguley said. “If I play golf for another 50 years, I can use the lessons of golf and the lessons of life I learned from the First Tee.”