By Jim Pomeranz
I was introduced to golf in the late 1950s by my uncle Jimmy Overton, head PGA pro at Sanford Golf and Country Club, a nine-hole layout a few miles north of the city limits.
The only first tee there was at the opening hole, a challenging 180-yard par 3 with a green framed by large oak trees. The only core values were to putt every putt (no gimmes), no cheating (record every stroke) and don’t mention certain things you may have seen, especially the consumption of alcohol. This was the fun world of a bunch of regular golfers who cussed and drank their way twice around the loop before retiring to the back room of the stately clubhouse for a round of gin rummy and a glass of bourbon or a cold beer.
The First Tee today means something very different. It’s a formal organization founded in the late 1990s by five marquee golf organizations — the Ladies Professional Golf Association, the Masters Tournament, the Professional Golf Association of America, the PGA Tour and the United States Golf Association — to attract more kids to the sport.
With increasing costs and many kids preferring video games and Snapchat to outdoor activities, youth interest in golf has waned. The First Tee teaches the game to children ages 6-18, combining golf skills with core values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment. Healthy physical, emotional and social habits also are promoted.
“They’re quick learners and not disappointed this is not only about learning to play golf,” says Courtney Stiles, executive director of The First Tee of the Sandhills. It is among six regional chapters in North Carolina.
Area courses donate teaching, practice areas and time on their tracks, while The First Tee supplies clubs and balls. Fees range from $40 to $120 per eight-week session and scholarships are usually available. With full-time staffs ranging from two to six people, each chapter relies on trained volunteers and coaches. Their combined budgets are just under $4 million, aided by local boards made up of business leaders. Statewide, the program reaches more than 50,000 kids each year.
The 2017 PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship has designated The First Tee of Greater Wilmington, North Carolina’s newest chapter, as beneficiary. In 2015, Wells Fargo pledged $1 million over five years to The First Tee, half earmarked for the Charlotte chapter. Today, there are nearly 100 sponsors at the national level and hundreds more at the local chapters. In North Carolina, the Wyndham Championship PGA Tour event supports The First Tee Triad; Eaton Golf Pride, the world’s largest producer of golf club grips, is the Sandhills’ major corporate sponsor; and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina backs The First Tee of the Triangle.
The number of golfers playing at least one round a year has declined for five straight years, according to the National Golf Foundation. But new golfers, primarily millennials, reached 2.2 million in 2015, near the record 2.4 million in 2000.
Lifting participation is important for The First Tee, but Randy Hofer, executive director of the Wilmington organization, sees playing golf as a byproduct. “Our commitment is to teach the core values and healthy habits — life-changing skills,” he says. “It happens to be through golf.”
Sort of like the first tee where I was introduced to golf, but different.