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Saturday, June 9, 2012

First Tee Of Metro NY Teaches More Than Golf

Golf can teach us all many lessons, but few are as valuable as those learned by the kids at The First Tee of Metropolitan New York. Each year, some 700 youngsters aged seven to seventeen—a great many of them from nearby Yonkers and other Westchester communities—not only get a solid introduction to the game at Moshulu Golf Course in the Bronx, they learn nine core values that build character and promote healthy life choices as well.

“We learn golf rules and respect and perseverance,” attests Scarsdale sixth grader Zach Shearon, 11, who has participated in The First Tee program for three years. In addition to Moshulu, he’s played at Hilton Head and nearby Centennial in Carmel with his parents. “My Mom’s not that great,” he says, “but my Dad’s okay.” The scoop on his own game? “I like to chip and putt. It easier because I don’t have much muscle yet but I have my aim down pretty good.”

Zach’s experience reflects the First Tee approach pretty accurately. “It’s really an education program,” says Metro NY First Tee Chairman Phil Laskawy. “Golf is simply the methodology that we use.” A member of Quaker Ridge CC in Scarsdale, Laskaway  became involved founding the organization ten years ago when he was Chairman of Ernst & Young. The Metropolitan Golf Association and Met PGA teamed up with NY Parks & Recreation to build the facility at Moshulu and launch the program in the metro area. It’s supported today by fund-raising events, grants from corporate sponsors, and individual donations.

The standard program runs in six-week cycles spring through fall, with each once-a-week class lasting 75 minutes, according to Director of Instruction Todd Bordonaro. Cost is minimal, just $15 for the full six weeks and clubs are available for those who don’t have them. Kids are divided into age-appropriate levels and, as they go through the program, the material becomes a little more involved. “They learn how to be patient, how to be positive, how to keep a good attitude, how to set goals,” Bordonaro says. “We talk about health and wellness, working together, things like creating a ‘go-to’ team you can count on when you have a problem or need some help.”

Along the way, they learn some golf, too.

“It’s more relaxing than other sports plus it builds your confidence,” according to eight-year-old Noah Phillips, who lives in Mamaroneck. His uncles play golf at Saxon Woods, he says, adding, “My Mom saw it in the paper and within sixty seconds she called up and registered me. I learned stance, posture, how to drive and chip. My favorite shot is the drive.”

During the summer months, The First Tee runs golf schools Monday through Friday for six hours each day. Bordonaro explains, “They come in the morning, have some golf instruction, do some kind of other activity, have lunch, then play nine holes.” Tuition for the camp is $250 per week.

Zarina Iman, eleven, and her sister Karina, eight, New Rochelle, came to The First Tee camp last year for the first time. “I don’t watch golf on TV,” Karina says, “but I like to play. There are so many trees and birds and squirrels and chipmunks. Once we saw a coyote.” Wildlife is included at no extra charge.

Activities and instruction are broken into fifteen-minute segments to accommodate short attention spans. It’s not all golf, either. To hold interest, groups may play a quick game of kick ball or tag between practicing their chipping and putting. In addition to the nine hole Moshulu course, the kids use the driving range, practice green, chipping green, clubhouse, and classroom/meeting space under the watchful eyes of counselors like Terrence Wolfe, 17, from Bronxville, who attended camp for two years before stepping into a leadership role in 2010.

Many instructors are PGA certified and all receive First Tee training. Aspiring junior golfers who want to improve their golf skills in smaller classes can sign up for additional lessons in the Players Golf Academy, which limits classes to six students and requires the ability to shoot scores of 63 or 54 strokes for two levels of advanced instruction. Five one-hour classes cost $100.

While there’s plenty of golf fun to be had, the real emphasis of The First Tee is preparing youngsters for life. They progress through multiple levels of achievement (Target, Player, Par, Birdie, Eagle, and Ace) based on tests of both life skills and golf knowledge. No prior golf experience is necessary. At the Player level, kids are taught the rules and etiquette of the game and some of the basics. The Par level emphasizes interpersonal communication and self-management skills (like introducing themselves in social situations) while students work on their swing, grip, and stance. Students at the Birdie level focus on goal setting and learn course management. When they get to Eagle, the young golfers are exposed to wellness concepts for mind and body as well as conflict resolution in the context of playing competitively. Ace encourages giving back to the community and the pursuit of higher education opportunities.

For older kids, there is The First Tee’s Path to College program. Last fall, participants and parents visited Iona College in New Rochelle for an information session with the Iona College admissions team as well as a student-led tour around the campus where they learned about life at college, the application process, and essential steps to be competitive applicants.

Over the years, a number of First Tee graduates have gone on to college and taken their love of golf with them. Paul Toohey plays for Manhattan College, Joe Lee for Nyack, and Matthew Beltran for the University of Vermont. Tyler McCaine of Mount Vernon went on to Colgate after representing The First Tee of Metro New York at the First Tee Open At Pebble Beach, a unique Champions Tour event that pairs 78 junior golfers with 78 professionals. Last year, James Slattery of Mount Vernon received the 2011 Leung Family and Friends Scholarship. The 18-year-old, who was a First Tee-er for five years, is headed for Santa Clara University in San Francisco. Kelly and Patricia Leung, who fund the scholarship, are graduates of the program themselves.

For young golfers in northern Westchester, First Tee programs are also offered at Mohansic Golf Course through the Yorktown Athletic Club. For more information about both locations, visit www.thefirstteemetny.org.

Among many other books, Dave Donelson is the author of Weird Golf: 18 tales of fantastic, horrific, scientifically impossible, and morally reprehensible golf

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