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Green values: First Tee teaches more than golf

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Brianna Hammond takes a swing and sends a golf ball skipping across the grass of the driving range at The Tradition Golf Club.

Hammond, a fourth-grader at Waccamaw Intermediate School, is learning about golf and building character skills through The First Tee of the Grand Strand. She and her classmates returned to The Tradition driving range and putting green last week for their first spring lessons as they hone their skills for a 10-school challenge competition at Wedgefield Plantation in Georgetown May 23.

Hammond said she likes participating in The First Tee. “Even when you have a bad hit,” she said, “they tell you to do better next time.”

Though The First Tee teaches golf skills, its main focus is character development. Golf doesn’t build character, champion Bobby Jones famously said. Golf reveals character. The First Tee’s approach of using golf as the platform to teach respect, responsibility, honesty and other admirable traits intrigued former Georgetown County School District administrator Tommy Gaither enough to bring him out of retirement.

“The whole curriculum is character focused,” said Gaither, who recently accepted the job as director of development and programming for The First Tee of the Grand Strand. “I loved the idea of working with kids,” he said. “Each golf lesson teaches one of nine core principles. We are not only teaching the skills of golf but also the skills of life as leaders. Producing the quality leaders of tomorrow is what we are interested in.”

The First Tee of the Grand Strand is operated through the Carol S. Petrea Youth Golf Foundation based in Shallotte, N.C. The foundation oversees four First Tee programs – the three others are in North Carolina — and the new Carolinas Life Skills and Leadership Academy at The First Tee of Brunswick County’s base, called The Golf Park at Cinghiale Creek in Shallotte.

The First Tee of the Grand Strand hopes to have its own facilities in Georgetown and Horry counties in the future. Officials are looking at space at 8 Oaks Park on Highway 521 west of Georgetown for a driving range, putting green and classroom.

Dr. Randy Dozier, superintendent of the Georgetown County School District and a board member of the Petrea Foundation, recruited Gaither for his new job. Georgetown County is one of only three school districts in the nation — others are Brunswick County, N.C., and Monterey, Calif., — to adopt The First Tee program for all fourth-graders during school hours. Students at Waccamaw Intermediate, Maryville, McDonald and Kensington are in the full program this year. The latter three schools use Wedgefield Plantation’s facilities on Tuesdays for their golf outings. Other fourth-graders in Georgetown County are using The First Tee’s National Schools Program with “Starting New At Golf” equipment of plastic clubs and tennis balls during physical education classes. About 5,000 schools participate in the First Tee program after school and on weekends.

The First Tee gets national exposure through affiliations with The Golf Channel, the PGA and LPGA and public service announcements during televised golf tournaments almost every weekend. “It’s a big outfit,” Gaither said. He went to The First Tee’s national convention in Nashville, Tenn., two months ago and signed on. “I was impressed with the quality of people,” he said.

With Dozier’s backing, the program has a solid footing in Georgetown County.

“Georgetown is really unique,” said Rusty Petrea executive director of the First Tee of Brunswick County who was helping with last week’s session at The Tradition for Waccamaw Intermediate School. “With in-school programs, you reach a lot of kids.”

Petrea said The First Tee continually works to overcome the myth that it’s a junior golf program. “Even when you watch the commercials,” he said, “it’s not clear. We teach core values such as respect, leadership and honesty. Another myth is that the program is for disadvantaged youth. It’s for every student.”

Golf is the hook for students like Rion Keesee of Waccamaw Intermediate School.

He listens carefully as The First Tee instructor shows him how to grip the club: hold it with your left hand and extend your thumb down the shaft like a hot dog. With your right hand, put the hot dog in a bun. That’s the grip.

The big push for the local program is finding volunteers, Petrea said. “Caring adults are the key to success,” he said. “It takes a couple hundred volunteers. It’s not about golf skills. It’s about making an impact on youth. This is something to be proud of.”

Ron Richardson, who plays regularly at The Tradition, River Club and Pawleys Plantation, was a volunteer for Waccamaw Intermediate last week. “I love the game and love kids,” he said. “Every golfer thinks he’s a teacher anyway.”

Carol Petrea, chairman of the youth golf foundation in Shallotte, said it’s important to have women as coaches too. “Girls need to see that women play golf,” she said. “They need to see it in order to know they can do it. We need more role models.”

Volunteers are being recruited to help with the year’s grand finale at Wedgefield May 23. Seven boys and seven girls from 10 county schools — Waccamaw Elementary third-graders will be included — will compete in a skills challenge. Select students will be chosen to participate in a Summer Academy at the Carolinas Life Skills and Leadership Academy at Cinghiale Creek. Participants will spend five days getting instruction from First Tee personnel and college interns.

Petrea said another “huge deal” will be The First Tee’s 32-team invitational golf tournament July 31 at Caledonia Golf & Fish Club. Entry fee is $2,000 per four-person team. All proceeds from the Grand Strand Future Generations Tournament will fund chapter programs, he said. Golf Channel personalities Kelly Tilghman and Charlie Rymer will host a pre-tournament dinner on July 30 at The Dunes Golf and Beach Club for players and guests.

“This will be sold out in 30 days,” Petrea predicted.

Waccamaw Intermediate students were learning that putting is harder than it looks last week.

Alexis Covington was wearing a pair of pink sunglasses with a pink moustache attached. She removed the glasses and sank a putt. “I love it,” she said. “I don’t usually golf. Everybody compliments you whether you do well or not.”

At the end of the 90-minute lesson, all the students came together to repeat the day’s core value: respect.

“Go back to school today and find a way to show respect for yourselves, for others and for your surroundings,” said Rebecca Albin, The First Tee executive director.

Anyone interested in sponsoring, volunteering or seeking more information should contact Gaither at 843-833-2999 or go to thefirstteethegrandstrand.org.

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