By Krista Fritzen
Bright spring sunlight glints off palm fronds overhead as the golfer lines up a putt. He shifts his feet, eyeing the hole seven feet away. He takes a couple of practice swings, making slight adjustments in angle and power. He strokes the putt and misses the hole by just inches—too short. He sighs, shrugging his shoulders, tips the ball in and begins to prepare for the next hole on the practice green.
At age eight, this golfer appears to be learning one of the sport’s great lessons, as summed up by rock star and golf enthusiast Alice Cooper: “Mistakes are part of the game. It’s how you recover from them, that’s the mark of a great golfer.”
Cooper wasn’t the first to note the connection between golf lessons and life lessons. In 1997, The First Tee was founded through a partnership that included the LPGA, PGA and USGA, among other organizations. While its aim is to increase interest and participation in the game by younger people, it also recognizes golf’s unique ability to teach life lessons. The First Tee’s nine core values—honesty, respect, courtesy, judgment, confidence, perseverance, sportsmanship, integrity and responsibility—are built directly into the program curricula, in order to positively impact participants’ lives.
Locally, The First Tee Central Coast reaches more than 30,000 children yearly in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties through programs at schools and on golf courses and practice greens. At the Santa Barbara afterschool program’s first spring session meeting, coach Kyle Marme gathers the small group of third- and fourth-graders at benches just off the practice green. Marme, a PGA professional, begins a discussion about showing respect on the golf course—replacing turf when it’s chipped out of the green, observing silence as a fellow player putts. The discussion extends to respect for oneself with the ideas of “personal par: good players hit bad shots” and “don’t compare yourself to others; ultimately you are playing against yourself.”
Beginning the first lesson with a discussion about etiquette and self-respect may seem a bit unusual. Butch Breedan, executive director of The First Tee Central Coast, comments, “We teach life skills through golf. We are building character, not just golfers!”
This isn’t to say that participants don’t learn the sport. Many eventually compete in high school and college; other chapters have produced golf professionals. Breeden attributes this to the excellent program coaches. Many are PGA professionals, and all have undergone extensive curriculum certification. Coaches aim to instill a love for the game. Breeden points out that golf is a life-long sport that appeals to a wider range of athletic abilities, noting that “kids who get picked last for a team also do really well with this program.”
The First Tee works to ensure that the program’s benefits—and golf in general—are accessible to everyone. Historically an overwhelmingly white, wealthy, male-dominated sport, approximately 39% of The First Tee program participants are female and 50% are non-white (according to 2014 data). With lessons already well priced, approximately 50% of The First Tee Central Coast afterschool program participants receive financial aid, and equipment is provided as needed. Collaborations with afterschool programs, including Girls, Inc., help spread the word.
The support and enthusiasm the program generates speaks of its value in the community. “Our nation needs honesty and integrity in the workforce,” says Breeden. We can all hope that organizations that foster such important values continue to grow.
Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Santa Barbara Seasons Magazine.