It is hard to argue against an initiative that exposes kids to golf who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity, but when The First Tee began 10 years ago there were doubts that the results would rise to the rhetoric. "We can demonstrate that golf is a game with a heart," former president George Bush, the program's honorary chairman, said during its 1997 launch, "and we can show it is a game for all."
With The First Tee preparing to mark its 10th anniversary in two weeks, Bush has been proven more right than wrong. The idea spawned in the wake of Tiger Woods' arrival has fooled a lot of people, not only surviving for a decade, but thriving as a youth-development program with golf as its touchstone.
Since its inception, more than 1.5 million young people have participated in The First Tee, which now has 202 chapters in 47 states and five international locations. "There are those in the industry who said the odds of The First Tee being here in 10 years were slim," says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., the group's executive director since 2000. "There were a lot of skeptics saying this was not going to last—that it is a social welfare program, or this or that. They were thinking that there is no way inner-city kids were going to sustain their interest in the game. The answer is, they're wrong. They have the same discipline, the same spirit, the same focus. We just have to bring it out of them."
It was largely assumed that disenfranchised urban minorities were the focus of The First Tee. "Our first [public service announcement] was an inner-city African-American boy pounding a tee in the sidewalk and hitting a golf ball," Barrow says. "We gave that perception. The First Tee's a big tent: urban, suburban, rural. We are reaching out to young people who otherwise would not have access to the game. That is not limited to inner-city kids."
There are chapters from South Los Angeles to Portland, Maine, New York City to Billings, Mont. More than half of First Tee participants are white, but 20 percent are African-American, more than triple the percentage of all black golfers, according to National Golf Foundation statistics. A slightly greater percentage of Hispanics (8 percent) are part of The First Tee than golf at large. Other minorities make up 14 percent of participation, compared to 1 percent in the game. One of the most encouraging statistics is that females make up 33 percent of First Tee participants, compared to 25 percent in the game as a whole.
When The First Tee began, many people assumed it would be the breeding ground for the next generation of Tiger Woodses. That has not materialized, but the increase in First Tee kids playing in the Champions Tour's Wal-Mart First Tee Open is an indication that more kids are more capable golfers: 70 were in the field this year, compared with just 20 in 2004. "More and more of our kids are playing high school and college golf," says Barrow. "We've got some kids who have a lot of game. Everybody thinks all our kids should be that way, and that's not a realistic expectation."
The First Tee is more about higher standards off the course than lower handicaps on it, although the game has everything to do with the life skills the organization teaches kids. "We would not be having the success we're having with these young people if golf were not the platform, period," Barrow says. "It's because golf requires a certain level of respect. Golf requires a level of individual responsibility and commitment to be successful. You need all those characteristics to succeed in life."
The First Tee has slowed its rapid expansion, from opening 40 to 50 chapters annually to about a dozen each of the last two years. "We did that," Barrow says, "so we could take a deep breath and make sure the chapters are functioning correctly and provide the level of training and support that is necessary." Barrow is bullish on The First Tee's National School Program, which in 2005 started introducing elementary school students to golf in physical education classes.
"With the chapter program, we have to bring the kids to us," Barrow says. "The school program is a chance to be where the kids are. My vision over the next 10 years is that golf will be institutionalized. Golf is going to be in a very different place in this country. It's going to impact the kids, impact the parents, impact society."
There is a scene in the movie "The Greatest Game Ever Played" in which the Francis Ouimet character, attending a party of U.S. Amateur contestants at The Country Club, gets dressed down. "Young man, you may have been invited," the former caddie is told, "but don't get the idea that you belong here."
We know how that story ended, with an unlikely U.S. Open victory three years later that jump-started Americans' interest in the game in the 20th century. There may come a day when a former First Tee participant wins the U.S. Open, but the victories, real-life ones, already have begun.