It might be difficult for kids today to fathom, but golf wasn’t always this open to everyone.
For decades — nay, centuries — access to the game was almost completely limited to one very small subset of the population: Rich White Males. If you weren’t in the spot on the Venn diagram where those three circles intersected, then this was not the sport for you.
Golf courses were exclusive clubs, and membership wasn’t available to just anyone.
If you were a woman, you stayed home while your husband played. If you were a minority, you were persona non grata. White but poor? Here, carry our bags.
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But in golf, as in nearly every aspect of life, progress has won out over time.
In 1997 — which, perhaps not coincidentally, was around the time that a young Tiger Woods began taking the whole world by storm with a dominating win at The Masters — a program called The First Tee was launched, with the aim of exposing kids from different ethnic and economic backgrounds to the game.
Golf had been gradually nudging its doors open for a generation or two, with the likes of Lee Elder and Calvin Peete serving as pioneers for those who weren’t Rich White Males. Tiger, though, kicked those doors down and took out most of the walls as well. He made it cool to want to play golf.
He also served as a very public reminder that a smaller and smaller percentage of Americans were fitting into that old demographic, and that for golf, only catering to that shrinking group was bad for business. The First Tee was the natural next step in the game’s evolution.
In the 19 years since its genesis, The First Tee has grown significantly, now reaching more than four million young players annually.
Two years ago, it infiltrated the public schools here in Columbus. The First Tee of Indiana has partnered up with 12 local elementary schools, providing the materials to allow golf to be taught at the introductory level in physical education classes.
Rather than using actual clubs, the schools incorporate SNAG (Starting New At Golf) equipment, a set of modified plastic clubs with larger heads that kids can use to hit colored tennis balls at soft Velcro targets.
Not only is this setup a much safer option than handing metal clubs to two dozen third-graders at a time, but it also allows lessons to be taught in the gym as well as outdoors.
Perhaps more importantly, it provides a free intro to a sport where startup cost is often a major barrier to entry. How many parents want to pony up for a new set of clubs only to find out a week later their son or daughter just isn’t that interested anymore?
Heck, how many can?
“So many of our kids here just have socioeconomic concerns, where this may have been the first time they had a golf club in their hand,” said Pam Smith, a phys ed teacher at Smith Elementary School.
The golf lessons being taught in the gym classes not only get kids to learn the basics of the game (on the targets, for instance, the points go down as you get closer to the center), but they also introduce what the First Tee calls the Nine Core Values — honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.
Those values, the teachers say, can stick with all of their students, even those that don’t stick with the game.
But the hope is that many of those introduced to golf will stick with it — perhaps even a few that might not have been expected to.
“It’s a great opportunity for them,” Parkside Elementary School physical education teacher Nora Coleman said, “and some kids that aren’t skilled in basketball, football, baseball, they find out that they really love golf, and this could be their little niche.”
It’s precisely those kids that The First Tee is hoping to bring into its green-grass program, which aims to graduate young players from the SNAG equipment and the gyms to actual golf balls and clubs on actual courses.
The hope is that as many of those elementary school players as possible come out to next month’s open house at the Rocky Ford Par 3 Golf Course. There will be games and contests as well as the chance to sign up for The First Tee’s summer program — and scholarships are available for those that might not be able to afford the cost of that program.
It’s not just a rich kid’s game anymore.
Mike David, the executive director of Indiana Golf, says that the green-grass program “is where the kids really get the nuts and bolts of the Nine Core Values and the Nine Healthy Habits and learn the game of golf — not only so they have a game that they can play for their entire life, but also so those life skills that go along with it are firmly implemented into who they are.”
That’s part of the beauty of the sport — it’s one of the few settings in American life where etiquette still seems to matter. The more young people that can pick up those manners and values through the sport, the better off we’ll all be.
Even if you’re flat-out horrible at golf like I always have been, you can get something out of it. That something could be the values that the game teaches, or it could be something as simple as getting four or five hours of peace and quiet in a world where that’s getting harder and harder to come by.
The First Tee is offering the youth of Columbus a gateway to all of that. And every one of them is welcome.
The First Tee Open House
When: Saturday, May 14, 10 a.m. to noon
Where: Rocky Ford Par 3 Golf Course
Who: Boys and girls ages 7-18