2002: Our Opinion - The First Tee growing stronger
Tod Leiweke remembers when the fledgling First Tee program was based in a utility trailer at PGA Tour headquarters in Ponte Vedra, Fla. During The Players Championship, it doubled as the “will call” for tickets. As such, it also had a convenient rest room.
Leiweke, the first executive director of The First Tee, recalls one gentleman who passed his desk after picking up tickets and using the men’s room. The man nodded over his shoulder and told Leiweke: “You’d better get some toilet paper in there.”
The early days were chaotic yet invigorating, said Leiweke, who in 1999 left The First Tee to become president and COO of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. Leiweke was at the First Tee annual meeting Oct. 24-26 as a recipient of the organization’s Founders Award. He couldn’t help but marvel at The First Tee’s new state of the art office space in the World Golf Village, its staff of 30 and its high degree of organization. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is its sense of purpose.
One of the first proposals Leiweke nurtured was in Fort Smith, Ark., a town of 75,000. At this year’s meeting, he learned that 1,200 children have participated in the First Tee of Fort Smith.
“That’s called change,” he said. “That’s extraordinary.”
No question, the First Tee has evolved rapidly. More than 500 First Tee volunteers and sponsors attended the annual meeting. Breakout sessions were sophisticated and informative; the participants were a more serious-minded group than many who jumped on the bandwagon five years ago without full understanding of the time, effort and mechanics of creating – and maintaining – an effective First Tee facility. This group has gone through or is undergoing a scrupulous process of documentation, designed to ensure that every First Tee facility meets national standards in the areas of acquisition, funding, management and oversight.
Joe Louis Barrow, who succeeded Leiweke as executive director in April 2000, exudes confidence that The First Tee will successfully complete the five-year Phase II of its business plan. The goals of Phase II are to have 250 facilities in operation, to recruit 500 affiliates and to attract 500,000 participants by 2005.
Moving forward, the focus is on quality control.
“We need to make sure the consistency of the experience is there at all of our facilities and chapters,” Barrow said. “We have to make sure that the First Tee brand stands for a consistent level of opportunity for kids.”
It will take years to determine if The First Tee has any affect on golf participation in the United States. If it does, that’s gravy. The real significance of the program is the positive effect it can have on America’s youth.
The First Tee is an initiative deserving of everyone’s help, golfers and nongolfers alike. If you have something to offer, call 904-940-4300 or visit the Web site at www.thefirsttee.org.