The nonprofit introduces kids to golf and uses the sport to teach life skills.
These golfers were not worried about the length of their shots, their pace of play or their scores.
They were just worried about having fun, whether it was running an obstacle course, playing “golf baseball” or taking turns announcing their name and favorite sport — and, oh yes, learning a bit about golf.
These were 6-year-olds discovering the game at Riverbend Golf complex in Kent. This was a diverse group of girls and boys, just what the First Tee wants.
What: The First Tee of Greater Seattle holds classes at Jefferson Park Golf Course and Jackson Park Golf Course in Seattle, Crossroads Par 3 Golf Course in Bellevue, and Riverbend Golf Complex in Kent.
Who: The program is open to everyone ages 5 through 18, with an emphasis on making golf accessible for children who otherwise would not have the means to learn the game. Thirty-two percent of participants last year were on full scholarship.
Want to know more? The website is thefirstteeseattle.org and the phone number is 206-839-4791
Founded in 1997 by the LPGA, Masters Tournament, PGA of America, the PGA Tour and the USGA, its stated goal is to “bring golf to kids and teens that otherwise would not be exposed to the game and its positive values.” In other words, make it accessible to more than just white boys from well-to-do families.
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So while the world’s best golfers will be coming to the Puget Sound area in June for the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, you might find tomorrow’s stars at Seattle’s Jefferson Park or Jackson golf courses on Saturday mornings.
Last year, 1,625 kids participated in First Tee of Greater Seattle classes, for ages 5 through 18. The number of players has been steadily rising.
“Golf can be expensive, and even though the culture has changed, it can still be an intimidating environment,” said Evan Johnsen , program director of First Tee of Greater Seattle. “Our goal is to change that. Our door is open to everyone.”
The numbers prove it. Last year 53 percent of the participants in the Greater Seattle program were minorities, and 41 percent were girls. Thirty-two percent were on full scholarship.
Golf is just a part of what the kids learn.
“It’s about character development,” Johnsen said. “And golf is the vehicle for that.”
Among the goals is getting kids to manage their emotions, resolve conflicts, set step-by-step goals, plan for the future and appreciate diversity. Unlike some sports that children see in the popular culture, golf is associated with traditions including dress codes and codes of conduct — and honesty is paramount.
The key trick for coaches is to teach life-skill values while still making it fun for young kids.
“We try to always be active and to teach it in a fun way and not in a lecture format,” said Johnsen, who went to Skyline High School in Sammamish. “We teach more by doing than by telling. We definitely get the players together to reinforce what they’re learning, but we try to set up activities that promote the core values. Players are learning, and we are learning.”
Johnsen played college golf at Claremont McKenna in California, then landed a job in real estate. He began working as a First Tee coach in 2009, and when the program director’s job for the Greater Seattle chapter came open, he decided this was his calling.
“The way young people look at the game is a way that we could all aspire to,” he said. “Their curiosity, energy and enthusiasm inspires me and the coaches. They see the game from a fresh perspective and are less results-oriented. To them, it is more about the game itself and how it can be fun.”
Johnsen said one of the goals is to have more teenagers in the program (7 percent of participants last year were in high school), and he said it is particularly gratifying when former players come back to be coaches.
“Some of the kids in the program go on to play on their high school team,” he said. “They make big strides in their golf game in the program, and they have an appreciation for the game. I think the program helps with self-esteem and gives them the confidence to be better able to accomplish their goals.”
Lin Gable, 17, is a junior at Newport High School in Bellevue and has been in First Tee since she was in the fifth grade. At first, she said she was a bit tentative.
“I wondered, ‘What are life skills, and what does it have to do with golf?’ ” said Gable, who plays on the Newport golf team. “But I have seen how much of an impact things you learn from golf can have on you. What you learn really pertains to your life.”
One life skill learned at First Tee, for instance, is goal-setting. But the influences can be more subtle.
“Let’s say you flunk a test or do really poor on an assignment; that doesn’t mean you will do bad on the next one,” Gable said. “In golf, you focus on the next shot, and you don’t worry about the shot you just hit. So on each assignment and test, just focus on that and do the best you can.”
Gable likes that the program is not too competitive and that with different age groups and levels, kids of relatively equal ability are together. She is such an advocate for the program that she has been a volunteer (helping with fundraising), an intern and now would like to be an assistant coach.
Some big hitters will lend their support to the program after the third round of the U.S. Open on June 20. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Fred Couples, the golf Hall of Famer and Seattle native, will be the guest speakers at the “U.S. Open ‘Fore the Future’ Gala” at the Sheraton Hotel in Seattle.
The event will be emceed by Paige Mackenzie, the former Washington star who is a Golf Channel celebrity. All proceeds will go to First Tee of Greater Seattle and First Tee of South Puget Sound. For ticket information, go to thefirstteeseattle.org.