First Tee celebrates its 25th anniversarye birthday in November. The program combines golf instruction for young people with a life skills program offered in school, after school and summer programs that introduce golf to children, with an emphasis on those in communities underserved and underrepresented who otherwise might never choose a club.
The timing of the organization’s founding in 1997, amid the early throes of Tiger Mania, was no accident. First Tee came into existence just months after Woods’ record 12-stroke victory at the Masters ended the era of soft claps, turning golf into a game of roars.
Led by Tim Finchem, the World Golf Federation launched First Tee with the support of the sport’s leading brokers: Augusta National Golf Club, LPGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour and United States Golf Association.
“It was Tim’s vision. Clearly, he attributes the excitement and growth around golf to the emergence of Tiger and what happened following the Masters that year, as well as the interest and widespread excitement for the game. The point of view was, let’s try to build on it,” says First Tee CEO Greg McLaughlin, whose history with the big cat runs deep. He not only led the Tiger Woods Foundation for 14 years, but long before that he was the tournament director of the 1992 Nissan Open which gave Woods his first sponsor exemption for a PGA Tour event.
The USGA believed in First Tee’s mission from the start providing an initial commitment of $3 million over three years that would grow over the years into a $30 million investment in a program that affects more than 2 .2 million young people per year. To commemorate First Tee’s silver anniversary, the USGA awarded grants to 25 chapters totaling $325,000 through its IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility) program.
“I think with all the touring that’s happened over the past couple of years, we’ve missed the fact that we’re having the biggest golf boom in the history of this game,” the CEO said. USGA, Mike Whan.
The first tee has played a big part in this tidal wave and Whan is encouraged by the changing demographics of the game, with women now making up more than a third of beginner golfers and non-Caucasian female players now making up a fifth of the golfing population. players of this sport.
“It’s a pretty exciting time for our game. The future of the game is going to be more America-like and the reason I know that is because junior golf is more America-like,” he added.
Nationally, there is a network of 150 First Tee chapters operating in every state in the country that deliver programs to 10,000 schools and 1,400 golf facilities from coast to coast.
“If anyone thinks we’ve harnessed the potential of golf, they’re wrong. There’s a long way to go to make sure every kid thinks about golf like they do baseball and football and I think it’s possible,” Whan says.
“What people are realizing is that golf is so much more than golf. That’s probably true for other sports, but even though I played football growing up, I don’t care. never remember anyone helping me with life lessons in football, although I’m sure I was learning them, it wasn’t that obvious,” he continued.
Four First Tee alumni have won PGA Tour cards, including three-time winner Cameron Champ and on the women’s side, Taylor Totland and Andrea Wong logged time on the Epson Tour ropes. Unsurprisingly, the list of alumni impacted by First Tee who have achieved success outside of golf as doctors, lawyers, software engineers and other miscellaneous professionals is much, much longer.
Recent efforts by First Tee include a need-based and merit-based college scholarship program, which has so far helped send 46 children to college. The goal is to reach the 100 mark by 2025. Beyond that, recipients of financial support are matched with a mentor and benefit from professional development opportunities. Twice a year, they travel to Ponte Vedra, Florida, for enrichment programs: learning how to write resumes, mock interviews, setting goals, and holding seminars for success.
“We sent kids to Harvard, Yale, Georgetown and Duke, the best universities in the country,” McLaughlin says.
First Tee also helps students land internships and once their scholarship recipients graduate, the plan is to further help them find jobs. Although academics are the focus and these are not athletic scholarships, many of the recipients currently play college golf, a testament to the quality of instruction in the program led by professionals in the field. teaching certified LPGA and PGA.
“Kids who stayed in the program for 6 to 11 years, their golf skills developed a lot and they became good players.” McLaughlin explains.
In the early years of First Tee a number of chapters were based on bare ranges or mat fields, but as the program matured chapter leaders gained access to much more comprehensive golf facilities , which has been a major boon to skill development.
“We learned early on that you have to take them out of practice at some point if you want them to be able to improve. They can only hit the balls for so long. They want to come out and play,” McLaughlin said.
In 2019, First Tee launched a $200 million fundraising campaign, the largest fundraising campaign in its history which will end in 2023. Despite a few years of hiatus during the pandemic period, they are still on the right track. way to achieve the goal on time.
“Golf is sound, and so is the First Tee,” McLaughlin says, but like any great golfer, he’s always looking for ways to make the operational swing of the First Tee smoother.
Long-term goals on his wish list include developing distance learning technology to expose the reach of the program beyond children who live near a local chapter and also improving the capabilities of distance learning to remove barriers to becoming a coach. The more coaches they can train, the more children they can reach.
Another program they aspire to develop is First Tee University, a series of online chapter leadership courses covering everything from board recruitment and fundraising to good governance.