Swing Path

First Tee of Delaware and Suburban Philadelphia develop their own role models—their students.


Published:

First Tee of Delaware director Judy Stout (front) gave the
girls the cloth name panels from the back of the uniforms
the caddies wore during the McDonald’s LPGA Championship.
Stout encouraged the girls to have the panels autographed
by the professionals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

At age 14, Bill Lonergan went to the driving range for the first time. He discovered the golf swing to be similar to the baseball swing he’d been accustomed to since he was 3.

“You’re swinging a stick at a ball,” the University of Maryland freshman says.

Through a network of friends, Lonergan’s mother had heard about the then-named Urban Youth Golf Program. She thought it sounded like a good idea, so she signed him up. Lonergan spent the next three years as a participant.

On his first round, Lonergan shot a 118. A year later he broke 100. And last summer, he shot an 87 at a course in New Jersey.

He claims that, thanks to the program, he’s learned a lot more than how to swing a golf club.

While open to all children ages 7 to 17, Urban Youth Golf has been targeted from the outset to reach economically disadvantaged city children.

“If it weren’t for us, those kids would probably never have a golf club in their hands,” says director Judy Stout.

In June 2007, Urban Youth changed its name to First Tee of Delaware. According to Stout, it’s more than just a name change. “It will increase our name recognition and allow us to expand beyond the state,” she says.

The program’s home base will remain in Wilmington, Delaware, with classes conducted at Porky Oliver’s Golf Club and the newly renovated Rock Manor Golf Club, set to open later this summer. The change will also allow First Tee to expand its college scholarship program.

There are national First Tee programs that include the annual Wal-Mart First Tee Open held at Pebble Beach.

The First Tee of Delaware, like its sister organization the First Tee of Suburban Philadelphia, teaches more than the game of golf.

“The main focus of the program is to teach life skills,” Stout says. “It just so happens that the game of golf is an excellent teacher of these kinds of skills.”

In a structured in-school and after-school environment, the First Tee integrates outdoor golf instruction with classroom training that weaves the game’s fundamental skills with the skills children need to live a productive adult life.

“We stress honesty and self-maintenance such as diet and hygiene with goal-setting and decision-making skills,” Stout says.

Bear, Delaware, resident Ayana Suber, a freshman at Mt. Holyoke College, began participating in First Tee when she was a 9-year-old in 1999.

“I didn’t think I would like it,” she says of those early days. “I thought golf was too difficult and only for white girls.”

What she found was not just a program, but an environment that was like an extended family. “I learned that golf is more about competition with yourself than with anybody else,” Suber says.

Lonergan and Suber learned the importance of giving back, and both remain involved with First Tee as volunteers.

For the past seven years, a similar program has been operating in southern Chester County. The First Tee of Suburban Philadelphia, based in Oxford, Pennsylvania, operates on the same principles as the Delaware affiliate. The curriculum is broken down into levels called par, birdie, eagle and ace.

“At the par level, students learn basic golf etiquette, along with those principles of honesty and self-maintenance,” Stout says. “At the birdie level, we discuss and practice goal-setting skills, and the eagle level focuses on developing decision-making and career-planning skills. The ace level involves the students in specialized individual projects, which includes serving as teachers in the program.”

Jack Nilon, president of First Tee of Suburban Philadelphia, recently unveiled an initiative to bring First Tee instruction to the youth of the city of Chester.

“We’ve signed a 15-year lease with the city to build and operate a three-hole practice facility at Eyre Park on the former site of the YMCA,” says Nilon. The group unveiled its $750,000 fundraising program in February, hoping to have the facility up and running by summer.

First Tee executive director Gregg Russell anticipates the Chester program will reach as many as 500 Chester city youth in its first year. That compares with more than 600 who participated in the First Tee’s program at Wyncote Golf Club in 2007. And Nilon says the group’s not through. “We’re also looking at opening a facility in Bristol Township at Queen Anne Park in 2009.”

Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, mom Helena McGinnis overheard other mothers talking about First Tee one day at the Y, then proceeded to get all three of her children involved beginning in 2006. Trace, 14, thought golf “was boring.”

“But the teachers made it fun, and I started to get better, especially my driving,” he says. Trace has since participated in tournaments. He has his sights on breaking 100 this summer.

Nationally, the 202 chapters that make up the national First Tee program operate 259 facilities in five nations and have reached 1.5 million students. The program has disbursed 125 scholarships.

For more information, visit www.thefirstteesubphila.org and www.lpgakids.org

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