Idaho kids have more places to learn, more access to courses and clubs and more coaches eager to teach them the sport. Golf is even offered at school, thanks to the dedication of non-profit organizations committed to increasing young people’s access to the game.
“Our primary goal is to get kids out on the golf course and to do so with instruction that encourages character development and promotes key values,” said Cindy Venosdel, interim executive director of TheFirstTee of Idaho. A little more than 6,000 Idaho youngsters have been introduced to the game of golf through the organization.
The Idaho chapter began five years ago as part of The First Tee’s national efforts to expand access for young golfers of all backgrounds. Launched in 1997 in St. Augustine, Florida, the program has a presence in all 50 states and has brought more than 3.5 million kids into the golfing fold.
Backed by the PGA of America, the LPGA and the USGA, The First Tee began by establishing 100 learning facilities and has since evolved into a prominent youth development organization. It uses golf as a delivery platform to encourage life skills in three primary arenas: lessons, school programming and outreach to military families.
Nearly 1,000 Idaho youth are involved in The First Tee Life Experience program, which teaches golf skills and fundamental values, which as any proud golfer knows, often go hand in hand. In Idaho, golf etiquette and life lessons are taught to junior golfers, ages 5 to 18, at the Foxtail Golf Course in Meridian and the Pierce Park Greens in Boise.
Typically kids come for a series of ten classes. There is a nominal registration fee, and scholarships are available if needed. The program aims to reach a broad segment of young people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to golf. The First Tee of Idaho also has clubs available through its Golf Loan Program, which encourages kids to take clubs home to practice.
The First Tee Life Experience teaches golf through a variety of activities led by certified coaches. For the younger kids, there’s a tick-tack-toe game for chipping and a moving target drill that uses hula hoops. The First Tee Life Experience is more than hitting balls from the driving range or practicing on a putting green.
“We utilize a game approach that helps improve their golf performance as well as their enjoyment of the game,” Venosdel said. “It’s more fun than just doing regular drills.”
Kids also play courses where they experience the rules and etiquette inherent in golf traditions. Players learn that they must be honest and report their own scores. They come to respect their opponents by giving them honors at the tee, for instance. Young golfers learn to respect the natural beauty of the course as well; replace divots, rake bunkers and fix ball marks to leave the course in the best possible condition for those playing after them.
“The unique aspect of The First Tee versus other sporting programs or golf instruction is that we proactively teach life skills, like honesty and respect,” Venosdel explained. As Jack Nicklaus said, “A kid grows up a lot faster on the golf course; golf teaches you how to behave.”
Central to the program is the Life Skills Curriculum, which is integrated throughout the experience. The curriculum rests on The First Tee’s Nine Core Values: honesty, respect, integrity, sportsmanship, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.
“Golf in itself requires a certain amount of personal responsibility and discipline as opposed to other team sports,” said Joe Louis Barrow Jr., The First Tee CEO. “We hope the skills they learn in golf can be transferred to other areas of their life.”
Hoping to introduce more kids to golf, The First Tee launched its National School Program to elementary schools in 2004. The organization trains teachers to introduce children to golf and core values during regular physical education classes. There are more than 3,400 participating elementary schools nationwide with an estimated 1.6 million children involved.
Idaho does not yet have The First Tee’s National School Program in its schools, but coaches of The First Tee of Idaho visit elementary schools in the Boise and Meridian school districts to help deliver golf-focused physical education classes.
The First Tee’s most recent nationwide initiative is to bring golf to children of military families. Through a partnership with the Department of Defense, coaches of The First Tee teach golf and life skills to kids living on military bases. In Idaho, the grant will help bring The First Tee programming to children at the Mountain Home Air Force Base in Mountain Home.
Idaho foundations like the Chuck Gates Youth Golf Endowment are also helping expand opportunities for Idaho’s junior golfers.
In its twelfth year, the Chuck Gates Memorial Golf Tournament in Sun Valley raises money for kids’ golf programs throughout Idaho. The tournament takes place each year in early June at Sun Valley Resort and has raised nearly $90,000 for junior golf to date. The tournament began as a casual gathering of friends to remember their pal, Chuck Gates, an avid golfer who died in 1997 at age 51. Roger Roland, a close friend of Gates and now the president of the Chuck Gates Youth Golf Endowment, attended last year’s event. “It started out as a group of guys and gals that knew Chuck,” he said. “We thought we’d get together and play a round of golf up at Elkhorn. I had no idea it would become what the tournament is today.”
The memorial tournament has supported The First Tee of Idaho and directly funds equipment, travel and lessons for young golfers in Ketchum. Specifically, the Gates Endowment supports more than 100 kids each summer through its donations to a summer golf program hosted by Ketchum’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“We wouldn’t be able to do what we do without the tournament,” said John Kearney, who supervises the city of Ketchum’s youth recreation program. The city’s summer-long program includes twice-weekly golf lessons and trips to courses throughout the region.
“It’s a stepping stone for younger kids learning to play the game,” Kearney said. “If a child really wants to play the game of golf, he is able to do so at a very affordable cost.”
The city program even includes its own tournament, the Junior Chuck Gates Memorial Tournament. Held at the Bigwood Golf Course in Ketchum, roughly thirty kids typically enlist. Some play nine holes; some play as few as three. The winners of the junior tournament advance to play in the senior Chuck Gates Memorial Golf Tournament.
According to Kearney, the more kids play, the more they will continue to play. "The tournament is a good way to get kid's playing the game," he said.
Photography Courtesy the Chuck Gates Foundation/Sean Strong
Text Megan Thomas