May 11, 2012 in Sports

First Tee teaches more than just golf to youngsters

By The Spokesman-Review
 
SR photo

Sports reporter/columnist Jim Meehan.
(Full-size photo)

For hundreds of Inland Northwest youngsters, the golf course has become a pretty good classroom.

They can be seen getting swing tips on the range at The Creek at Qualchan and pointers on the putting green at the Coeur d’Alene Golf Club. They’ll be able to do the same things at Esmeralda later this summer.

The three area courses are involved with The First Tee, a national program founded in 1997 by the World Golf Foundation that brings golf to kids that otherwise wouldn’t be exposed to the game.

Golf, and much more.

“For us, it’s really been great to see kids start hanging out at the course, like it was back when I grew up,” Qualchan pro Mark Gardner said. “It’s a safe environment and a good, healthy environment to be around.”

First Tee emphasizes nine core values and each class focuses on a life skill. Honesty was the theme of a recent session at Coeur d’Alene. Children with hard plastic clubs belted tennis balls at Velcro targets on a few makeshift holes. They were responsible for keeping their score.

“We keep their scores in our heads, but we want them to be able to keep score and be honest about it, even if they whiff it,” Coeur d’Alene director of golf Dave Hobson said. “It’s a great way to teach them to be honest and respectful of each other and the golf course.”

Qualchan is in its second year with First Tee and its third as part of First Tee’s national school program. The number of participants is growing, from 330 last year at Qualchan to more than 500. First Tee program director Bob Heck said 4,400 students at 14 District 81 elementary schools were introduced to golf last year.

“What I like about First Tee is it’s a progressive, tiered program,” Heck said. “I kind of view it like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. They have to pass certain tests to move up to another level. It’s amazing to see how quickly they progress as they continue through the program.”

Gardner said Brad Nickle, a financial advisor with Wells Fargo, initiated the drive to bring the program to the region. Fundraisers were held to reach the required start-up level.

“Brad’s an avid golfer, he’s got grandkids and he wanted to see golf grow, and he checked into First Tee,” Gardner said. “He found out that the graduation rate is pretty low in District 81, something like 60 percent. First Tee, if you look at their history, their retention rate of keeping kids in the program is the highest of any of the programs and their high school graduation rate is one of the highest of all the youth programs.”

First Tee is open to children ages 7 and higher and classes typically run 90 minutes, once a week. Cost ranges between $45-90, the latter for longer summer sessions. Gardner noted scholarships are available and that “our goal is to not turn anybody away.” More information can be found at thefirstteeinlandnw. org.

Coeur d’Alene already had a thriving junior golf program, but becoming affiliated with First Tee was a no-brainer. Hobson hopes to have 100 youngsters involved in spring, summer and fall sessions.

“Not only because of the cost factor, but it’s a better overall program. It’s much more structured,” Hobson said. “People see First Tee ads (on TV) and it’s national and all that stuff, but until you go through one of the classes you have no idea how much we teach a kid in 1½ hours.”

The impact often goes beyond the game.

“One kid lost his dad last summer and the only thing he really wanted to do was be at the golf course,” Gardner said. “He said, ‘I want to hang out with coach Bob.’ It’s a neat thing to see in an unfortunate situation that he was looking forward to First Tee.”


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