Golf as Metaphor for Life
by Lynne Hewes
Small Western Kansas towns don't normally get much news coverage, so it's pretty impressive when a town the size of Cimarron (1,934 in the 2000 census) attracts the attention of an international organization. It's even more impressive to see what happens next.
About twelve years ago the town of Cimarron was in the process of upgrading its golf course from sand greens to grass greens. Local golfers and other community members volunteered to do the physical labor, everything from installing an underground sprinkler system, on up. They also worked together to generate the money necessary, but they needed more funding than they were able to raise themselves.
That's where The First Tee Organization came in.
The First Tee is a program created by the World Golf Foundation in 1997 to introduce young people of all backgrounds to the game of golf and its values. According to First Tee promotional materials, "Through The First Tee Life Skills Experience, a curriculum for teaching character education through life skills, young people around the world discover how the skills essential to success on a golf course can help them flourish in life. Through coaching, feedback, modeling and mentoring, participants learn to focus on what they do well, which creates a positive outlook and promotes self-confidence in all areas of life."
At the time Cimarron was working on its golf course upgrade, The First Tee had only been in existence a couple of years, but its fame had spread.
Dave Long, president and CEO of the First National Bank in Cimarron, had heard of the program, and when community members came into the bank, seeking to borrow money to finish the golf course, he thought of The First Tee.
"It was just a gamble," Long said. "When they came to me, the golf course didn't even own their land. They'd been leasing it for years from the Sid Warner family for a nominal fee. I wanted to help them out, but they needed something the bank couldn't do for them. I'm in economic development. First, I looked at government grants, state and federal, but they were no longer in existence for something like this."
Long got in touch with The First Tee, then in Florida.
"They said no, their program was designed for inner-city children. I said, 'Tell me the difference between inner-city kids and rural kids who don't have these opportunities.' They said, 'We've never thought of that.' I said, 'Well, you need to think of it. Just give me some time to sell you on this."
J.D. Daniels was Long's first contact from the program in Florida.
"He came out and visited with Paul Conrardy, Ray Johnson, and me," Long said. "That guy had never even heard of sand greens—or Kansas, for that matter. We took him on a tour, showed him our town, the city park, the new city library. He couldn't believe that such a nice library facility had been financed entirely through donations. Basically, we sold him on the community. But what really did it was when we took him to the high school."
Long purposely brought Daniels to the high school during a passing period between classes.
"The kids spoke to him. He was in awe," Long said. "He was impressed with their good manners, the respect they showed when they talked with us in the halls. He said, 'If you did this in a large city, there wouldn't be this kind of respect.' Basically, the kids helped sell First Tee on us, in that period between classes."
When all was said and done, Cimarron's golf course and The First Tee came to an agreement: $100,000 for fifteen years involvement in The First Tee program. Shortly after that, the United States Golf Association (USGA) also committed to $50,000 for the project.
"My belief is that anything that helps your community, you should put your shoulder to the wheel and get behind it," Long said. "There was a lot of volunteer work that went into the course that first couple of years. It's been good for our community. If we took 'good enough' and left it alone, where would we be? I firmly believe that if a community doesn't progress, it will regress, and that's not what we want for our community."
Long believes that The First Tee involvement in Cimarron has been an excellent bargain.
"Their program's values are no different than what you and I teach our own kids," he said, "but the unique thing is that The First Tee teaches through a game, and the kids pay more attention."
First Tee programs are offered at other courses in Kansas, but none in the western section of the state, and certainly none in such a small town.
"Each year, when we meet with the regional director, he always comments on how amazed he is that such a small community makes this work so well," said David Ediger, who is a local board member for the program and also athletic director at Cimarron High School. "The director says he uses Cimarron as an example to other First Tee Chapters."
First Tee representatives told Cimarron that in metropolitan areas, large corporations and wealthy people usually get out their checkbooks for projects they believe in.
"What they couldn't believe was the physical volunteer effort here," Long said. "They said that the thing that distinguishes Cimarron from other First Tee courses is that level of volunteer help, the actual physical involvement by so many members of the community."
The First Tee has as its mission statement: "To impact the lives of young people by providing learning facilities and educational programs that promote character-development and life-enhancing values through the game of golf." Some publicity about the program is necessary to recruit young members.
"Our executive director, Roxy Vietti, sends home flyers near the end of school," Ediger said. "We also have an outreach program that gets into the elementary schools to teach younger kids some basics and make them aware of the program. The kids start as young as kindergarten."
The First Tee Experience highlights nine core values to teach youngsters life skills. These nine values have also been used to name golf holes at several of The First Tee courses: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment.
Vietti, who is also director of the Gray County Recreation Center, is a huge fan of the program.
"I'm very proud to be part of the program," she said. "The First Tee provides curriculum that really impresses me. They emphasize quality, and they want all their First Tee courses to be on the same page. Golf isn't the emphasis; the values are. And when they're taught the right way and kids can have fun, they make a difference. When we look at the life skills they are learning and the progress they make, we evaluate what we see on the course. The First Tee program wants accountability. It has a checklist for coaches and parents. We observe the kids' behavior; their parents can observe their improvements. There is even a written test over life skills."
While Cimarron offers most activities as a summer program, there is also some indoor activity.
"The core values are first introduced in a classroom situation," John Mowry, one of the current instructors of the course, said. "Then they are re-taught while we're all on the golf course—as well as at any time we have a 'teachable moment.'"
The First Tee curriculum seems to make a difference.
"All the resources we use are professionally researched and developed," said Mowry. "They give young people the best methods, concepts, and developmental techniques known. Practicing all these, along with the life sport of golf, keeps these young people engaged in a positive activity which helps develop them physically, as well as mentally and emotionally."
Volunteer First Tee Coach Charlie Harp, who has worked with the program for seven years, agrees.
"The kids grasp the concepts better by using golf as the instrument of learning," he said. "Golf is an activity they can play their whole life. Hopefully, we do a good job of teaching the Nine Core Values so they will stick with each player for their whole life too."
Such lessons, learned in an interesting environment, take hold.
"I see kids being more responsible," said Lance Walker, who teaches golf at the high school and is also a board member for Cimarron's First Tee. "They learn how to handle anger. They learn about accountability. They learn how to talk to adults. Each of these values is introduced in a 'golf' setting, but also related to their everyday life. The First Tee is more about teaching kids these values than it is about golf."
All coaches are volunteers.
Mowry began coaching because his son Matt entered the program. Younger coaches have grown up with the program.
"We recently started having some of our older First Tee kids help coach the younger ones," Ediger said. "In fact, we've started a Junior Advisory Board, which will really get going this summer. The students will provide ideas, from their student point of view, on how to improve the program."
Part of The First Tee mission is to expose as many young people to the program as possible. Increasing numbers in the program is more difficult in a rural area like Cimarron than it is in larger, metropolitan areas.
"Increasing numbers in the program can be a challenge out here," Walker said. "The First Tee is asking all of its chapters to branch out to other communities and other courses. We are currently exploring reaching out to Ingalls and Montezuma."
In order to reach more young people in such an under-populated area, Vietti helps introduce the program into Gray County schools.
"Overall, I think I've introduced the program to over 500 Gray County kids," she said. "I go to Gray County schools and do a target program in their P.E. classes. We have equipment that we can bring indoors and play as part of their physical education program. That helps spark interest. Montezuma has its own nine-hole golf course, and we're hoping that they will become an affiliate program to our First Tee program. That way they can use their local people to help coach and teach the values in their own town. Our retention rate is high; we see most of these kids summer after summer; some have been with us the whole 10 years we've been a First Tee course."
The First Tee offers strong incentives to young people who stay involved and progress through the program.
"Last year we sent a fourteen-year-old to a leadership and life skills camp in Manhattan," Vietti said. "We nominated three people, and we hoped that one--at most--might make it. His expenses were all paid by The First Tee, and he had the opportunity to get to know his peers from around the world. There is also a First Tee scholarship program, and The First Tee is continually adding more reward programs."
Next summer, the Cimarron First Tee is planning to increase parent awareness of what the program offers.
"We are putting together a parent orientation for next summer," Vietti said. "We want parents to know that we're not just a drop-off summer sports activity. We emphasize life skills at home, on the course, at school, and in the community."
The First Tee program with its nine core values makes a positive impact on both kids and their community.
"I've seen many of our students on the course and see how they take care of the course," Ediger said. "That translates into how they take care of other things in our community and in our school."
"For whatever reason," he said, "some kids haven't had the opportunity to be exposed to many positive values. The First Tee helps guide them in a positive direction with its nine core values and associated life skills. By simply exposing young people to these things, we give them tools to make better life choices."