Five years ago, four Columbus residents came together to make a decision that has touched the lives of more than 5,000 elementary school students in the area.

Jim Dietz, John Fairbanks, Chad Cockerham and Mike David brought The First Tee national program to Bartholomew County Schools, and it has been impacting the Columbus youth since 2012.

The national organization began in 1997 in an attempt to grant an inexpensive opportunity for youth in economically challenged communities to learn and play golf. The initiative has made it to Columbus in the form of The First Tee of Indiana Columbus Chapter, but learning golf is only half the story.

The program is driven by a handful of core values, including honesty, integrity and perseverance. These values are being instilled within the children of the Bartholomew County elementary schools through the Starting New at Golf (SNAG) program. The SNAG program uses learner-friendly golf equipment such as plastic clubs with magnified heads and colored tennis balls that kids hit at Velcro targets.

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Parkside Elementary physical education teacher Kristin Wiley is in her first year teaching in the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and said she never taught golf until she got to Parkside.

“I was a little nervous to do it,” Wiley said. “I feel like this year, it was a successes for us. So that just puts me a little bit more at ease. The kids were successful; the whole program was successful. I think that is a benefit of all of the support of the First Tee Program.”

Being a golfer is not a requirement for teaching the SNAG program. Smith PE teacher Pam Smith is in her third year with the program and said the materials provided by the program make it pretty easy to grasp.

“The curriculum is top-notch,” Smith said. “The visuals help me understand how things are set up and how things work together. It’s color coded for the kids, so it’s absolutely a user-friendly program.”

The SNAG program is offered during the school year, but kids have an opportunity to continue through the Green-Grass program led by Keith VanDeventer, the pro at Greenbelt Golf Course. VanDeventer led Green-Grass for the first time last year and said the connection with the SNAG program is important for the continued development of the young golfers.

Green-Grass will take place in June. There will be an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. May 17 at Greenbelt for people wanting more information on the program.

“Last year, we were just a very beginning program,” VanDeventer said. “We tried to teach them the core values and healthy habits. That’s a big part of what we do. It’s not just about the golf. It’s the other side of things that we’re really stressing as well.”

The AJGA Tournament conducted at Otter Creek every summer highlights the top high school talent from around the country and also features four to five international participants every year. The tournament allows for the high school students to get recognition from college scouts in hopes of receiving scholarships while also raising local community funds to put back into the elementary schools’ First Tee Programs.

AJGA Marketing and Committee Chair Melissa Fairbanks said the entire First Tee Program is a community initiative. It relies on the help and cooperation from the school system, Parks and Recreation and many other members of the community.

“It’s the Columbus way that we integrate both the public and private, volunteers and people that are in paid positions,” Fairbanks said. “That’s the way this whole thing has come together to work.”

Top-of-the-line golf talent attends the summer tournament, but Fairbanks said the true goal five years ago was to get the SNAG program into the schools. Director of Elementary Education Laura Hack said having the First Tee Programs inside the schools is a win-win for everybody because it gives students the opportunity to learn life skills inside a classroom.

“It’s one of those things where we’re trying to develop the whole child,” Hack said. “What can we do inside the schools to make sure that we’re not only developing children, but adults … we’re talking about bettering students’ communication, bettering their self-management, their goal setting and overcoming challenges. That’s what this First Tee Program does.”

Smith, a William and Sally Hanley Teaching Excellence Award recipient, has even integrated math, science and other classroom subjects into her SNAG program teachings. She uses the trajectory and angles of hitting the golf ball to discuss parallels and other math terminology with her sixth-graders to further their education through golf. She also ends her SNAG segment with a mini golf course she makes.

Smith works closely with the classroom teachers to get to help take the SNAG program way beyond the realms of just playing golf. The nine core values are the main focus for The First Tee, and it is important to reach kids young with the crisis of drug use in the community, Fairbanks said.

“This is a program that addresses healthy habits and healthy lifestyles for our kids,” Fairbanks said. “These are the things that matter. If we reach our kids young through role models like teachers and principals, then we can reach these kids to help them understand early that there is a better path for their life.”

If you go

There will be an open house from 4 to 7 p.m. May 17 at Greenbelt Golf Course for anyone wanting more information on The First Tee’s Green-Grass program.

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Frank Bonner is a sports writer for The Republic. He can be reached at fbonner@therepublic.com or 812-379-5632.