2006: Tiger's Impact - 675,000 and counting

By Adam Schupak

Do you remember where you were when Tiger Woods won The Masters for the first time? On April 13, 1997, he annihilated the field by 12 strokes, shot a record score of 270 and became the first black to win one of golf’s most coveted titles. It changed the game forever.

Of that occasion, Lee Elder, the first black to play in The Masters, said: “Tiger Woods’ win here, it might have more significance than Jackie Robinson’s break into baseball. No one will turn their head when a black man walks to the first tee.”

How prescient of Elder to mention “the first tee.” Because it was that Augusta moment that spawned a national program called The First Tee, dedicated to teaching golf to youngsters, especially minorities. With his victory, Woods effectively mandated the PGA Tour to act.

Just seven months later, golf’s governing bodies gathered to unveil The First Tee concept. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem made clear Woods’ impact: “I think all of us in the game feel that we’re in a unique moment in time. Just from going out to (PGA Tour) tournaments all year long and seeing the kids, the minority kids, you realize that every day that goes by is a day that we could be impacting the future of this game by creating access.”

Some scoffed at The First Tee, saying it was just another publicity stunt, a crazy experiment. And there was resistance. Some people didn’t like the idea of inner-city kids coming to play in their park. They insisted it wouldn’t, couldn’t, work.

They were wrong.

Fast forward nine years. Today there is a First Tee chapter in almost every state. Through 2005, the program had exposed golf to 675,000 young people, and to date it has 257 facilities in 47 states. Perhaps most impressive, 26 percent of its participants are black – more than four times greater than their representation within the U.S. golfer population.

The program also has evolved in ways unimaginable a decade ago: Twenty-nine colleges

provide scholarships to First Tee participants; a Champions Tour event at Pebble Beach pairs The First Tee participants with pros; and a week-long academy offers leadership training to the program’s best and brightest. And there’s more to come. The First Tee’s ambitious Phase III, which spans from 2006 to 2010, calls for reaching 3.5 million youth by introducing golf education into elementary schools (see story, p12).

“The First Tee now puts golf in the same light as Pop Warner football, Little League Baseball and AYSO soccer,” says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., the program’s executive director.

“I think The First Tee is well on its way to creating a franchise and a brand that stands for introducing the game to young people across the country.”

Its mission now goes well beyond the original intent of introducing children to the game. It transformed itself from just another junior golf program into a youth development organization by promoting its nine core values – including honesty and responsibility – and teaching a life skills curriculum. Early on, it decided it wouldn’t serve just urban areas, but any community that wants to expose its youth to golf.

Though Woods has supported The First Tee, his value to the program doesn’t lie in his direct participation. Rather, Woods’ arrival on the professional scene identified him as the catalyst for golf’s powerbrokers to act in unison – and for the non-golf public to listen.

There had been a reluctance among local governments to allocate land for golf projects, Barrow says. But Woods changed all that. To date, 95 percent of

the real estate used for First Tee chapters has been donated through use or lease agreements. Barrow estimates the value of all that land at $200 million.

Perhaps more than anything, Woods created a sense of urgency among golf’s leading organizations and supporters that it was time to tackle golf’s diversity challenge. Most notably, Finchem brought together the leaders of these often autonomous groups. When The First Tee’s plans were unveiled in New York’s Central Park during a four-city tour, all the big names were in attendance: Finchem, President George H.W. Bush (who became The First Tee’s honorary chairman), USGA president Judy Bell, LPGA commissioner Jim Ritts, New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, Hall of Famers Pat Bradley and Tom Watson, and Earl Woods.

For Tiger’s father, it was a moment to savor.

“Have you ever seen so many people so eager to plant a blade

of grass in a ghetto?” the elder Woods asked the dignitaries who joined him on stage.

Finchem announced the goal of having 100 facilities in some stage of development by 2000. Initially, the vision was to bring golf to urban centers that children could readily reach, using their bicycles, bus passes or subway tokens. >>> <<< The First Tee’s original public service announcement, which debuted in 1998, showed a black youth using a driver to pound a tee into the pavement of a narrow alley in what looked like midtown Manhattan. The voiceover said: “Every kid should have some place to play golf. Help them play.”

The stirring visual immediately gained The First Tee recognition but also stereotyped it inadvertently.

““That’s where you wanted the programs to be. But it also said this is a program for black kids. And that’s not what it is supposed to be,” says Leon Gilmore, one of the original First Tee staffers and now the executive director of the Champions Tour’s Charles Schwab Cup Championship.

But the premium cost of land in desired urban sites almost immediately forced the First Tee to reconsider its development strategy. So it broadened its search for host sites: Communities in suburbs and rural outposts such as Valparaiso, Ind. (see story, pX) bought into the concept and made land available for chapters.

Such growth, however, caused some grumbling within The First Tee. Staff members expressed concern whether the organization was straying from its diversity mission.

“There was a lot of discussion early on around the water cooler. . . . I called everyone into my office, and we talked and talked,” recalls Tod Leiweke, The First Tee’s original executive director. “At the end of the day, we weren’t going to discriminate. (We decided) the nine core values are good for everyone.”

Furthermore, Barrow says, the First Tee’s broader expansion efforts and diversity focus haven’t been mutually exclusive.

“When I first learned about The First Tee, I really thought this was the answer to making golf more diverse. No question about that,” Barrow says. “The fact that 50 percent of our participants are from a diverse background reinforces that.”

The next defining moment in the evolution of The First Tee occurred during a meeting with supervisors in Chesterfield County, Va., in 1998. Leiweke explained to them how the program would teach participants not only golf, but the inherent values associated with the game. But his audience of non-golfers stared back skeptically. Responded one supervisor: “My son plays tennis, and he has all those virtues.”

Asked another: “Why not build a bike trail? It will be cheaper to build and maintain.”

Eventually, the Chesterfield chapter overcame the supervisors’ resistance. But the encounter crystallized for The First Tee’s national staff that such community concerns would become a recurring roadblock. Those who did not believe in the qualities associated with golf would never see the sport’s value. A new challenge needed to be addressed: How could The First Tee demonstrate and quantify the game’s ability to build good character?

“That’s when the lightbulb went off,” Gilmore says. “If we don’t do something that’s different, we’re just going to be another junior golf program that has great marketing and great slogans but still just teaches grip, stance and posture.”

Research conducted by the University of Florida, UNLV and the University of Virginia provide measurable results indicating The First Tee life skills program effectively teaches the game’s values.

“When someone says show me, now you can pull out criteria and all these statistics and say this is what happens,” Gilmore says. “It changed the way people look at The First Tee.”

Adds Len Stachitas, vice president of resource development: “The life skills program opened (The First Tee) up to a wider range of potential funders and therefore has a larger impact.”

How much impact, however, will depend largely on the health of The First Tee and its chapters.

The First Tee’s national office reported just less than $14 million in 2005, according to its annual report. It awarded grants to its chapters totaling $4.2 million – about 32 percent of its expenditures. Each First Tee chapter is an independent 501-C3, responsible for its financial well-being.

That means local staff and volunteers must fundraise relentlessly. Those efforts typically account for nearly 75 percent of a chapter’s operating funds. It’s an eye-opening reality for many of the people who joined The First Tee out of a love for the game or a desire to teach children.

“I never considered myself a salesman,” says Jim David, former executive director of The First Tee Aurora (Ill.) and now its Midwest regional director. “I never wanted to cold call people but it’s part of the job.”

In 2005, The First Tee introduced ZONE (Zeroing in On Network Excellence), which provides each chapter with an analysis of its performance as well as those of other chapters. It’s a critical tool for regional managers to help chapter leaders identify areas of weakness and improve them.

“Truth is none of The First Tee chapters are what you would call extremely healthy,” says Fred Tattersall, one of its most generous contributors and the founder of The First Tee of Richmond (Va.) and Chesterfield. “They’re not like universities with big endowments. Most of them live year by year. The most amazing thing is none of them have failed.”

There have been a few close calls. A reorganization of The Golf Foundation of Wisconsin, the state’s umbrella group for the sport, left it unable to support four First Tee chapters within its borders. Fortunately, those chapters were “reconstituted” in 2004, meaning that their respective communities essentially took ownership of them, Barrow says.

In another case, the Beckley, W.Va., chapter – which was jointly established with a local YMCA in 2000 – dissolved after four years when the YMCA chose to focus on its own programming. A new group, the McDowell County Citizens Conservation Corps Inc., however, revived the chapter and reopened it in December 2005.

With the financial pressures on stand-alone facilities and First Tee executives’ desire to grow the program, the organization modified its development strategy again. To reach its Phase II goals of exposing golf to 500,000 youngsters by 2005, the First Tee decided to complement the development of its own facilities by establishing 500 affiliate partners with existing courses.

“I’m jealous of basketball where you put a hoop up, pave a few square feet and you’ve got something to work with,” Finchem says.

Building a stand-alone facility is expensive and time consuming, taking an average of 18 months to two years. Plus, many existing courses embraced the partnership because they had excess capacity. The course of action proved prudent and productive. First Tee locations started popping up seemingly as fast as Starbucks. More than 30 per year have opened since 2001, with a high of 52 each in 2004 and 2005.

More access has translated into more participants. The First Tee achieved its Phase II goals. By the end of last year, 274 stand-alone facilities had opened or were in development facilities, and an additional 687 affiliates had been established.

But what exactly does “introducing” mean? Are the First Tee’s results akin to a hit on a Web site or an actual e-commerce sale? Both, according to Barrow.

The First Tee counts among its tally any youngster who has participated in a First Tee initiative no matter how brief.

“We developed the program in such a way that every encounter we have with young people is a positive encounter and gives them a different perspective even if they come once,” Barrow says.

More importantly, especially to industry leaders trying to grow the game, The First Tee created a participant retention program. Unveiled in 2000, the Par, Birdie, Eagle and Ace certification process is The First Tee’s version of gradual achievement, similar to karate’s belt system. Last year, 77,653 First Tee participants were enrolled in some stage of certification: Par – 69,344; Birdie – 6,518; and Eagle – 1,791. (The Ace was introduced this year).

Says Barrow: “If you want to, you can look at that as our retention rate.”

Or, more accurately, short-term measurement. It’s far too early to evaluate how First Tee participants will ultimately alter the game, whether it’s in terms of participation, composition or competition. Barrow implores for patience, reminding observers that many of The First Tee’s earliest participants are still only in high school or just entering college. And he insists the First Tee isn’t about producing the next Tiger Woods.

He is just as excited at the prospect of a First Tee graduate becoming a Supreme Court judge (the goal of First Tee Scholar Rayshon Payton), a doctor (the dream of Amit Odaiydar, defending champion of the Wal-Mart First Tee Open) or the first in their family to attend a four-year college (like trailblazer Angelika Hughely, an original First Tee Scholar who now is applying to law school).

Now that’s impact.

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