Across Michigan, programs are using golf to help youth master the game of life

Battle Creek resident Patrick Denney didn't grow up playing golf. But his three young sons have taken to the game while gaining confidence, respect, and valuable life skills taught through The First Tee of Battle Creek.

While many youth golf lessons and leagues focus on skills and drills, The First Tee's Life Skills program drives home character development, nine core values, and healthy lifestyle habits.

"The big changes we've seen (in him) is being able to relate to other kids, walk up to them, shake their hand, look them in the eye," Denney says of his 12-year-old son Parker.  

Parker also enjoys the interaction with other kids and being outdoors. He says the golf and life skills have helped him in school and other ways. 

"I like playing it because it gives me a chance to relax and have fun, especially in summer, because the weather is nice and it's sunny," Parker says. "I figured out it was fun and I was actually pretty good at it."

Besides gaining a sense of responsibility, one of his biggest takeaways, he says, is "to treat other kids like you would want to be treated. Even though you say that a lot, it's not necessarily easy to do. It's helped me learn that.” 

Founded in 1997, The First Tee is an international youth development organization with chapters throughout Michigan. The program reaches young people in all 50 states on golf courses, in schools, and through other youth-serving organizations and community programs. In 2016, chapter programs exposed 5.3 million young people to the game of golf at more than 1,200 golf facilities and another 4 million through the National School program.

Although each chapter operates independently, the organization has developed its own curriculum which integrates the nine core values into learning the game of golf: Honesty, Integrity, Sportsmanship, Respect, Confidence, Responsibility, Perseverance, Courtesy, and Judgment. 

The First Tee of Battle Creek serves about 300 children ages 5 to 18 through its Life Skills program, which meets twice a week at Binder Park Golf Course. It's not so much about hurrying to advance. Participants progress through different levels by demonstrating the nine core values and passing Life Skills and Golf Skills assessments. There's a Target group for five and six year olds. All Life Skills participants start at the PLAYer level, for ages seven and up, regardless of age or skill.

"Golf is difficult, and some of these kids like to give up because they aren't doing so great," says Remy Dillon, executive director of The First Tee of Battle Creek. "So much of what we do is about praising and encouraging the process and not worrying about the results as much. So, we really like to emphasize the small things, making sure the actual skill we're working on that day is what we're praising, not the results of the shot."

The chapter reaches another 2,400 children through outreach programs, including Practice with a Pro, a summer junior league open to all youth, Calhoun County Junior Tour, and the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship. 

Its National School program, which trains physical education teachers on the Life Skills curriculum and introduces students to the game of golf as part of gym class, involved 2,700 kids in nine schools in 2016.

Battle Creek's chapter offers three-week Life Skills sessions throughout the summer and scholarships are available. Coaches also undergo extensive training to build positive relationships, serving in a mentor capacity and help participants develop character, build confidence, learn healthy habits, and gain an appreciation for the sport.

"Really, the golf is secondary," Dillon says. "We're teaching them much more than golf, how to behave, how to think for themselves, how to act around others and be positive and encouraging. And really it all stems from our coaches and our mentors, many of which are volunteers or former teachers and all of which have an interest in the game of golf and youth."

Rik Greenwood started coaching for The First Tee of Battle Creek six years ago and was named Person of the Year in 2013. 

"It's been an amazing journey to learn how to become a teacher to kids, to be a mentor to kids, to be a positive influence to kids," he says. "The thing that sticks out to me the most is the life skills experience, the way that it's taught, the seamless integration."

He says it's also helped improve his own game, but the most rewarding part is watching the kids' growth through the program. 

"They come out of their shells," he says. "You can see the confidence with all these kids that go through this program. It's actually really amazing to watch."

The First Tee curriculum makes it simple to teach, but incredibly effective, by bringing visuals to the core value. In golf, there are no referees, so it's up to the player to call penalties on themselves. 

"The definition of integrity is doing the right thing when no one's looking," Greenwood says. "You're calling that penalty on yourself. They learn integrity, they learn how to make the right decisions off the golf course."

Reaching underserved and underprivileged youth is core to its mission, along with exposing youth from diverse backgrounds to golf.

"The First Tee is a program for everyone," Greenwood says. "It doesn't matter how much money you make, it doesn't matter your race, who you are. Everybody has the opportunity to come out and give golf a try and learn some really good life skills in the process."

Some chapters run Life Skills programs spring, summer, and fall, including The First Tee of West Michigan. That chapter, based in Grand Rapids, launched in 2011 and has branched into Muskegon and Holland. It also offers off-season programs like Homework and Hitting to keep kids engaged throughout the winter, provide help with homework and work on golf skills indoors. 

What's unique about The First Tee is each chapter has the autonomy to develop programs that best meet the needs of the local community, says Ebon Sanders, executive director of The First Tee of Benton Harbor. 

In Benton Harbor, Life Sills programming takes place June through August and reaches more than 700 youth. But that chapter has stepped in to help prepare high school students for college and career success through a variety of outreach programs. One of its newest programs, The Coalition, builds off its past College Knowledge Program, and works with students who are eligible for the Benton Harbor Promise.

Program participants receive SAT and college prep assistance, meet with mentors, and develop a portfolio based on individual strengths they can use to apply for college, internships, and employment after college. 

"We're helping them be successful in high school and go through that college and career selection," Sander says. "People come to speak to them about careers and pathways. We've been able to get some great mentors and tutors from the community. Any time you put them around positive adults, great things can happen."

Benton Harbor's chapter, started in 2004, serves 4,000 youth annually with a goal to grow to 6,000 in five years. Besides reaching students through the National School program, the chapter administers the Benton Harbor Area Schools Golf Program, which has the highest team GPA of all athletic programs at Benton Harbor High School. 

The chapter helps participants find employment at its main location, The Golf Club at Harbor Shores, and also offers Girls on the Green, a Scholars Program and scholarship opportunities. 

"From our chapter's perspective, one of the things we have truly embraced is diversity," Sanders says. "We try to espouse a tenth core value, which is inclusion. We're in Benton Harbor and introducing this game to a lot of young people who might not have had access before leads everything that we do."

The First Tee also offers national opportunities for participants, including leadership conferences, summer camps, a golf prep academy, tournaments, working with PGA pros, alumni programs and even becoming a coach for the program.  

In Detroit, the Midnight Golf Program is another successful youth golf program that has served nearly 2,000 youth since it started in 2001. The program was founded by Renée Fluker, who saw the transformation in her own son after he took up golf, and has grown into an empowerment and development program that teaches a variety of life skills. 

It's open to seniors in high school throughout the Detroit area, with about 50 percent coming from Detroit Public Schools, but students must apply and space is limited. The 2016-17 program had more than 600 interested applicants, 250 participants and 221 young people successfully completed the program in May, says communications director Clover McFadden. 

"We work very hard to ensure the group is gender balanced," she says. "We have low-income students and there's no regard to test scores, just a drive and willingness and spirit to want to do better."

Midnight Golf runs for 30 weeks during the school year and teaches golf skills through a partnership with the PGA of America, plus soft skills including financial literacy, etiquette, networking, college preparation and community activism. The core values focus on accountability, caring, empowerment, exposure, integrity, quality, relevance and respect, and the program aims to improve under-served young adults’ personal, educational and professional development.

Participants meet twice weekly from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Marygrove College in Detroit, and cover a life skill topic followed by a family-style dinner. They break off for golf instruction by PGA professionals and small group Tee Time sessions, which are led by adult volunteers in business, human services and education, and cover topics such as writing thank you notes, public speaking, conflict resolution, spiritual and emotional health, dressing for success, dining etiquette, internships, saving, and investing.

Nearly 1,700 participants have been admitted to or graduated from more than 100 different colleges and universities. There is a 100 percent high school graduation rate among participants, and the last two years, 100 percent of those who complete the program have enrolled in a two- or four-year college, McFadden says. The goal is to instill in them the confidence, skills, and tools to and get through college.

"We're really focused on getting these young people in the city and surrounding areas off to college despite whatever circumstances," she says. "With determination and hard work, college and career and personal success is a possibility for all of them."

Marla R. Miller is an award-winning journalist and professional writer based in West Michigan. Learn more about her by visiting her website or Facebook. 

Photos by Susan Andress and courtesy of First Tee of Battle Creek

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.
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