First Tee forum shows ‘other side of golf’

Students of the First Tee program during the Children's Miracle Foundation Classic at Disney.

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – After a long weekend in the Orlando area, the future is looking decidedly brighter for Parker Davis – at least where golf is concerned.

Davis was one of the 50 First Tee representatives who spent three days at Walt Disney World Resort for the Future Leaders Forum. After a series of presentations on Nov. 12, the participants spent a sunny Florida Saturday roaming the grounds at the Children’s Miracle Network Classic, clad in matching red polos and hats that attracted smiles and nods from other patrons out to enjoy a day of golf.

“I’m one of the those guys that’s at the golf course every day, hanging out with everyone,” Davis said, explaining that he spends a large amount of that time around the superintendent, learning about the art of turf management. “I’ve been around golf since I was 4.”

After learning the ins and outs of the industry in what might be considered an immersion golf weekend courtesy of the First Tee, it’s a safe bet that Davis, out of the First Tee of Roanoke (Va.) Valley, won’t be breaking that habit any time soon.

“I didn’t realize how many types of variety of jobs there is in one particular job,” he said.

By the time the lunch hour had rolled around Saturday, the group of bright-eyed high-schoolers had learned how to hand-mow a green and replace the hole, market a major tour event, stimp a green and had been in and out of the on-site TV compound and media room.

Zachary Stuart, of the First Tee of Chicago, had only two words left as he prepared to wrap up the formal aspect of Saturday’s forum and settle in for some free time at the tournament and the theme parks.

“Amazing experience,” said Stuart, who attended engineering and business programs at Michigan and Penn, respectively, during each of the past two summers.

Stuart, who walked away from the experience with the realization that he could take an engineering degree and apply it to the golf industry, is applying to college for next fall, with Stanford, Illinois and Penn at the top of his list.

Stuart’s is a familiar story among the 50 students - high school sophomores to seniors - selected for the forum. All have been involved in the First Tee for at least a year and a half and have reached the “birdie” level, meaning they have been certified in the life-skills program. Their goals for the future – in golf and in life – are lofty, to say the least.

About 90 students from across the country applied for the forum, which introduces participants to every aspect of the golf industry. The event is sponsored by Toro, a turf-maintenance equipment and precision-irrigation-systems supply company. Judson McNeil, who works in Toro’s Giving Program and Community Relations, said Toro plays a heavy role in selecting the applicants for the forum based on their resumes, experience with the First Tee and an essay.

As McNeil notes, the number of applicants has increased in the four years since the forum began as candidates submit increasingly impressive resumes. McNeil attributes it to word of mouth, as the program becomes stronger and word spreads among First Tee chapters across the country.

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Students of the First Tee at Disney

Toro’s involvement doesn’t stop there.

“We work with the curriculum and every year have been a critical part of the planning team,” McNeil said.

Toro, which has partnered with the First Tee since 1998 and has signed on for three more years with the leadership program, has tapped some of its relationships through the years to bring in different speakers at each forum. The first forum focused on science and agronomy, and the second leaned on Jack Nicklaus as participants learned the ins and outs of marketing a brand. The transition to the current format – which is based heavily on behind-the-scenes tours of the Children’s Miracle Network Classic – began last year.

Saturday tours allow participants to get a first-person look at the work that goes into a PGA Tour event, but Friday focused almost entirely on leadership and business skills as participants spent the morning touring Epcot and receiving leadership training from the Disney Institute. The lessons took hold as nearly every student stood at the end of each presentation to address guest speakers personally and ask for a business card.

“They were very attentive, questions were great, very gracious,” said Bill Cioffoletti, director of PGM recruiting and internship for the PGA of America. “They get it.”

Cioffoletti, together with Robert Waller, the senior director of grounds operations for Marriott Golf, served as the keynote speaker at the forum. Both presentations fit into the broader goal of introducing students to alternative careers in the golf industry, outside of life as a touring professional. Joe Louis Barrow, chief executive of the First Tee, says it goes hand in hand with the program’s curriculum.

“One of the key consistent goals of the industry is to expose the business aspect of the game to many bright young people so that they would consider golf as a career as opposed to just an avocation or a hobby that they play on the weekends,” Barrow said.

Each time a reference to playing golf was made during the forum, hands shot up as eyes grew wide. A putting contest Saturday afternoon drew major concentration as whispers of longing to play a full round circulated through the crowd.

Kortnie Maxoutopoulis, who will play for Rutgers in the fall, isn’t sure about her future but intends for golf to be a part of it. Maxoutopoulis, of the First Tee of Tri-Valley in California, was one of several students in the group who has played in the First Tee Open at Pebble Beach. She has drawn Clint Eastwood and Tom Kite as partners at the event, and still maintains contact with Kite. While teaching isn’t out of the question for Maxoutopoulis, neither is a pro career.

“There’s so much stuff that I want to do in my life; that would be a great opportunity,” she said.

For Ashley Noda, a high school junior representing the Greater Sacramento chapter, playing professionally is her sole focus.

“My whole life revolves around golf,” Noda said.

Like many of her peers that made the trip to Orlando, Noda finds her options for keeping it that way just got a lot broader.

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