2004: The Passion of the First Tee

Pebble Beach, Calif.

I was standing on the putting green at Pebble Beach Golf Links. The guy in the SUV stopped his vehicle right in the middle of the road. He jumped out and walked with conviction directly toward me.

“We need to talk,” he said with passion in his voice.

To know golf is to know the passion of the game. The First Tee Open here at Pebble Beach was all about passion – a passion for junior golf and the national First Tee junior program, a passion for educating children, a passion for the long-term future of golf, a passion for the enduring reality that this sport can be played skillfully by young and old.

The First Tee Open showcased youngsters along with veterans. It featured 78 professionals from the Champions Tour and 78 junior golfers from First Tee chapters around the country.

This was about as emotional as a golf tournament can get. Arnold Palmer inspired the juniors with his words. Tom Watson, who won the U.S. Open right here with a memorable birdie-birdie finish in 1982, spoke to them about the meaning and importance of integrity. It made a huge impression.

Just as the guy who stopped his vehicle made a big impression on me. It was NBC commentator and analyst Roger Maltbie, who was unhappy about a column I had written. I had criticized NBC and Maltbie, and he vigorously defended himself and his network.

Maltbie is a passionate man, and it shows – on and off the NBC telecasts. I figured it was the perfect time for us to have this discussion because it was a week of high-flying moods and sentiments. I respect him for conveying his feelings to me.

Throughout the conversation, I kept thinking, Look at the power of golf. Look at the passion. Here are two grown men, talking with the animation and enthusiasm of two kindergarten children.

It was that kind of week. Everybody associated with The First Tee Open should be proud because this was an event that transported golf to a new frontier. The pros were more tightly entwined with the juniors than I could have imagined.

“Andy Bean got on the range with me, and he really helped me,” said 16-year-old Adam Barkow of Albany, Calif. “This whole thing is such a great thrill. It’s like a major for us. It’s better than the U.S. Junior, and it lasts a whole week.”

And what did Barkow have to do to qualify for the event? Oh, not much, except finish birdie-par-par-birdie-eagle in a qualifying tournament to shoot 70 and avoid a playoff at 71.

Craig Stadler, who picked up a winner’s check of $300,000 playing alongside junior partner Aaron Woodard, was utterly believable when he said, “My goal for the week was to do everything I could to get him to Sunday (by making the cut). Watching him, rooting for him so hard, I got so involved that I ended up shooting the easiest 63 (on Saturday). It was an awesome week for me, for both of us, for this event.”

Woodard, 16, was one of the stars of the event. He and Stadler were easy winners in the scratch better-ball competition, and Stadler was quick to praise Woodard by reminding everyone that the youngster parred the first three holes of the opening round while he bogeyed two of them.

What Stadler really wanted to talk about, though, was Woodard’s most recent grade point average. “Go ahead,” Stadler said, “ask him what it was.”

When asked, Woodard responded that it was 4.4 (on a 4.0 scale, meaning essentially that he had an A-plus average).

Woodard is the son of Tom Woodard, one of the few African-American golfers to play on the PGA Tour (albeit without much success). He is now director of golf for the city of Denver.

Three juniors tied for second in the pro/junior competition, and two of them were girls – 18-year-old Paula Creamer, headed to the LPGA Qualifying School as an amateur, and 14-year-old Sydney Burlison, headed to the Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla.

The First Tee Open was a celebration of junior golf, and celebrations often tend to overlook the realities that lie below the surface. In this case, junior golf must still deal (particularly in big cities) with the complex challenges of affordability and accessibility. An inner-city youth exposed to golf may lack the money and transportation to pursue it as a legitimate sport.

The First Tee Open was played on two courses – Pebble Beach and the Bayonet layout at what used to be Fort Ord. Juniors can play Bayonet for $25 and Pebble Beach for $395. OK, the Pebble Beach Co. uses its Del Monte course rather than Pebble Beach for community outreach, but the truth remains that this event was played on a course where the green fee is $395 (plus an extra $25 for a cart for those not staying in the Pebble Beach Lodge, where the cheapest room is $555 per night).

This is not a criticism of the Pebble Beach Co. or its policies. Far from it. Pebble Beach is unique. It is a must-see, must-play destination.

However, the ironies of an event with the First Tee name deserve to be noted. One of the primary goals of this program is to bring golf to youngsters without resources, yet the tournament was played on one of the most expensive resort courses in the world.

At the Coldwell Banker real estate office, located just off the putting green at Pebble Beach, two nearby properties had price tags exceeding $31 million. Of 30 featured houses, the least expensive was $1.495 million (and it was inland in Carmel Valley, not in Pebble Beach).

Perhaps the First Tee youth should have been given a house tour. Now that would have been an education. Or at least an eye-opener.

Irony aside, this was a wonderful tournament. Everybody seemed united behind junior golf. Everybody seemed excited. Everybody seemed full of emotion.

When a guy stopped his SUV in the middle of the road and came tromping toward me, I didn’t even blink. It fit perfectly with this passion play that went by the name golf.

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