Sometimes the most obvious ideas are equally audacious. Such is the The First Tee National School Program.
Teach golf at school? In between the monkey bars, dodge ball and two-hand touch football?
“What better place? . . . All kids have to go to school,” says Betsy Clark, the LPGA’s vice president of professional development and collaborator in a World Golf Foundation initiative called Golf 20/20.
The interest in golf created by the emergence of Tiger Woods was the impetus behind Golf 20/20, a strategic alliance of golf industry constituents created in 1999 to steer the game toward greater participation and access.
During its first four years, Golf 20/20 was a forum that was long on identifying obstacles to increased participation but short on solutions. At least until 2002, when a Golf 20/20 junior golf task force came up with an obvious, but profound, proposal.
The task force was convened to grapple with the fact that, according to the National Golf Foundation, the average age of a beginning golfer is 31. It was during those discussions that Ruffin Beckwith, executive director of Golf 20/20, issued a challenge.
“I said to the group, ‘Suppose we had a BHAG – a Big Hairy Audacious Goal’ – it’s from the book ‘Built to Last’ by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras,” Beckwith recalls. “What if our BHAG was to introduce golf to every kid in America? It’s not plausible, but how would we do it?’ We went around the table and everyone basically said the same thing. Got to fish where the fish are. Got to go where the kids are, and the kids are in school.”
Beckwith and the task force concluded it was paramount to reach students at a young age, which meant targeting physical education curriculum. Thus was born the National School Program, which has since been incorporated into The First Tee.
NSP efforts already have reached 400,000 children in 900 elementary schools from 50 communities. The program is about to be rolled out nationally.
The beauty of the NSP is that it doesn’t discriminate. It is designed for children in kindergarten through fifth grade, the years when youngsters are bombarded with activities and start to choose what sport, if any, to play. In the past, youngsters had two ways to learn golf – parents or private lessons. And while the affluent can afford the latter, and The First Tee aids youth who have little access, there remains a large middle class of students who are disconnected from the game.
Golf in schools has always existed to some degree. Physical educators with a passion for the sport introduced its basics. But safety and liability kept it from going mainstream. Enter the arrival of safe-for-school equipment that alleviated such concerns and made the game easy to teach. But hurdles remain: Physical education isn’t required in many states, and some schools have ditched it in favor of more academics.
Nevertheless, The First Tee made NSP the focal point of its Phase III goals – to reach 140 communities, 4,000 schools and 2 million students between now and 2010. If it succeeds, the program could become a feeder system to The First Tee and other junior golf organizations and spark a generation of junior golfers.
Similar approaches, however, have been tried before.
Between 1970 and 1985, the National Golf Foundation partnered with as many as 100 education consultants to bring golf to high schools, says Joe Beditz, president of the NGF. Jim Flick, Bob Toski, Gary Wiren, Marilynn Smith, Peggy Kirk Bell and Shirley Spork all were involved in teaching physical education instructors how to introduce the game to a new generation of golfers.
But such efforts stalled mostly because of disappearing PE classes, casualties of budget cuts and administrators’ decisions to focus more on academics and avoid potential liability issues.
Metal clubs and hard balls sound like an accident waiting to happen to principals and PE instructors unfamiliar with the sport. In the past three years, Clark says she has served as an expert witness in five cases in which students were injured while learning golf in school.
The bigger challenge to golf education, however, has been an obstacle since the 1970s: PE struggles to retain a place in a crowded curriculum.
Its omission from the list of “core academic subjects” in the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 was a major setback. Art, music and PE often have second-class status in schools that place greater emphasis on students’ abilities to pass standardized tests.
“There are communities that have expressed an interest that they want the school program in their communities, but there’s no PE. That’s the No. 1 barrier,” says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., executive director of The First Tee.
But there is hope that a PE revival could be under way. George Graham, professor of kinesiology at Penn State University, says such education is winning favor again as a way to stem an obesity epidemic plaguing today’s youth. West Virginia passed a law requiring three days of PE; North Carolina and Texas approved legislation requiring more physical activity during school days.
The emergence of safe-for-school golf equipment has given industry leaders optimism that their efforts this go-around will be more effective.
“It would be impossible to do without SNAG (Starting New At Golf) equipment,” says Clark, referring to the modified gear that’s being embraced by schools. SNAG products consist of durable plastic, oversized heads, short shafts, tennis-style balls, and a variety of bright, colorful targets.
During the 2003-04 school year, the NSP was piloted in 130 elementary schools in eight communities, reaching more than 50,000 children. Two questions were asked: Could gym class be used to introduce golf, and could PE teachers get their classes to accept the game?
The answers were a resounding yes. About 80 percent of the students who participated in the pilot said it was their first exposure to the game, according to a program survey.
For the program to succeed, PE teachers need
to be persuaded they can teach golf effectively.
More often than not, instructors teach sports they like and are reluctant to tackle sports they don’t know much about or don’t play themselves. But a 2003 survey on PE Central, a popular Web site for PE teachers, showed they would be willing to give the sport a try: Eighty-six percent of 2,405 respondents said they would be “very interested” in teaching golf if equipment, training and a curriculum were provided at no cost.
To help win over PE teachers, NSP officials developed a curriculum based on the standards of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education. The NSP, which can be taught indoors or outdoors, also educates students about The First Tee’s nine core values, such as sportsmanship and responsibility. Furthermore, NSP scheduled training sessions for educators to learn the program during professional development days rather than on their own time. As the program continues to expand, one of its biggest challenges will be maintaining proper training to ensure quality education, says Benna Cawthorn, the NSP’s director.
Teachers are asked to implement the program in a minimum of four 30-minute segments. Those sessions may be taught in a span of two to four weeks. They begin with a basic introduction, including exercises as simple as rolling a ball, then progress to discussions about equipment and practicing simple movements such as the putting stroke.
It costs the NSP $2,100 per school to train teachers, obtain the curriculum and purchase SNAG equipment, Cawthorn says.
For the next two years, the NSP’s expansion largely will be funded by the the PGA Tour and its tournaments, thanks to the support of commissioner Tim Finchem. He has adopted the program as one of his pet projects after getting a first-hand look at its potential. One day, Finchem’s youngest daughter, Stephenie, then a fifth-grader at Jacksonville (Fla.) Country Day School, told her father she was learning to play golf at school through NSP.
“She started to want to play, to read about golf in the paper and watch it on television, which was near and dear to my heart,” Finchem says.
The PGA Tour is focusing on helping introduce NSP in school districts that are in markets where Tour events are held. The BellSouth Classic near Atlanta, for instance, will donate $35,000 over the next two years to help fund the program in 42 of Gwinnett County’s 60 elementary schools, and the PGA Tour will contribute an additional $25,000.
This year, 22 tournaments have alliances with the NSP; next year Finchem expects that number to reach 40.
Eventually, the goal is to extend the program through 12th grade so students can remain exposed to the game throughout their school years. Discussions already are under way to launch a middle-school pilot program for 2007-08.
“We don’t want children to get this momentum and then hit middle school,” Cawthorn says. “We feel they are most likely to transition in middle school or high school.”
Some will become golfers right away. The vast majority, if they take up the game later in life, will remember an experience they had as youngsters. It may even help reduce the steep learning curve many adults face.
“It’s crucial to learn basic motor skills at a young age,” Graham says. “The body remembers. The swing you learn early stays with you for life.”