BENNER: Group bringing golf to the masses lands alum at U.S. Open

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Bill Benner on sports

As golf stages its national championship—the U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa.— the focus will be more on the course’s grass than on the game’s grass roots.

The perception is the reality that these guys—the Americans, anyway—are pretty much poured out of the same homogenous bottle. They represent a game of the elite, prodigies who developed their games on the fine fairways of country clubs or expensive public courses, who advanced largely through top-flight collegiate programs, who always had the right equipment, the right instructors and even the right clothes.

And if you’re looking for African-American representation, look no further than Tiger Woods simply because there is no reason to look any further. He’s as big as they get on the PGA Tour, but he’s all you get if you’re looking for players of African-American descent.

So will the U.S. Open ever look like, well, an open U.S., where anybody, regardless of socioeconomic background or the neighborhood they grew up in, has an opportunity to pick up a club, receive some solid instruction and advance their skills to a level that could take them to a place like Merion?

Well, if there is the will, there possibly is a way. It’s called The First Tee, a grass-roots, introduce-learn-and-progress golf program that’s been around since 1997 and now has a face on the PGA Tour. Scott Langley, a First Tee product from St. Louis, is both on the Tour and, this week, playing in the Open. He’s the first First Tee alum to make it.

And that’s great, says Mike David, the longtime executive director of the Indiana Golf Foundation, which sponsors three First Tee chapters in Indiana and is eagerly looking to add more.

But the focus isn’t to develop Tour pros, David says. It’s to introduce youngsters to both “a game and life lessons that will last them a lifetime.”

So it came as something of a surprise to learn the IGF’s First Tee program, in its central Indiana chapter, is already reaching out to 10,000 young people in 22 IPS schools and that, in partnership with Indy Parks and Recreation, it has five local training academies that it wants to grow to eight within the next three years. IGF also has established chapters in Richmond and Michiana (South Bend, Elkhart) and is looking to add more in Bloomington, Columbus and French Lick by next year.

This summer, 150 youth, from elementary-school age to 18, are taking part in central Indiana’s First Tee program. David wants that number to grow to 500 within a few years.

David also points out that First Tee is more than just teaching the skills of the game; it’s also about how the game should be played. Thus, the curriculum includes core values such as honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.

Gee, wonder if we could enroll Congress?

“Golf is different than other sports,” David says. “After all, in what other sport do you call penalties on yourself?”

David acknowledges that golf must battle the perception that it is too expensive, that it is “viewed as a sport for the elite,” but points out there are many affordable opportunities for youth—and their parents—to become involved.

In addition to First Tee, the IGF also sponsors a scholarship program for a series of eight golf camps it stages at its Junior Golf Academy, a 24,000-square-foot facility adjacent to the Legends of Golf Club in Franklin. The facility includes 24 dorm rooms and an 18-hole par-3 course.

The IGF also sponsors a Junior Tour program, staging 75 tournaments around the state through the warm-weather months. Three hundred of its alumni have moved on to collegiate programs and two—Richmond’s Bo Van Pelt and Evansville’s Jeff Overton—have made it to the PGA Tour.

In return, Van Pelt is helping with the funding of Richmond’s First Tee program by holding a charity tournament.

It all takes money, of course. David says the IGF’s $800,000 budget is funded mostly through private donations, and it is about to embark on a $3 million capital campaign. IGF’s First Tee program does receive some grant funding from the national First Tee organization, but not enough to cover the total costs.

Anyway, who knows? Perhaps someday, a kid out of a First Tee program in Indiana will reach the first tee of a U.S. Open. But if not, he or she still will have a game—and the lessons it teaches—for a lifetime.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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