The First Tee of Greater Austin


"Golf is the Game, Life is the Lesson"


By: Sherry Lewis


May 2009



The First Tee of Greater Austin was formed in 1998, originally as a youth development organization.  The founding partner organizations are the PGA of America, LPGA, PGA TOUR, Augusta National Golf Club, and USGA.  The national First Tee program is involved in several golf events hosted by their founding partners, including the Valero Texas Open and the HP Byron Nelson Championship.  Since the start of the Austin chapter in 1998, there have been over 4,000 children of all ages involved.  There are 14 First Tee chapters in Texas.  There are 208 chapters total, with five international chapters.  Overall, 2,000,000 children worldwide have been touched in some way by the program! Just this year in the Greater Austin chapter there has been 700 to 800 participants.  Their curriculum and nine core values came from the Stanford Research Institute.  The nine core values are integrity, sportsmanship, courtesy, confidence, honesty, perseverance, judgment, responsibility and respect.  These values are taught through the game of golf.  The program teaches children that every round of golf starts and ends with a strong hand shake.  Teaching a young person how to look someone in the eye and introduce themselves while giving a firm handshake teaches the value of confidence.  The program is about educating children to become better golfers while they learn life values and become better citizens. 

Children of all ages are accepted into the program.  When a child enters the program there are different levels a child will progress through depending on their cognitive skills: Par, Birdie, Eagle, and Ace.  Every child starts in Par and works their way up to Ace.  Par and Birdie levels are mostly about learning your “personal par” and goal setting.  Eagle level is about learning and applying the nine core values.  For example, mentors will ask the children what their “go-to” shot is, the shot they know they can hit well under pressure.  Then they will ask who their “go-to” person is; a parent, teacher, etc. The next questions would be, ‘who is your “go-to” team,’ the people they surround themselves with and the people who are uplifting to them, thereby making them aware of who is supportive for them.  Ace level involves community service and helping with the First Tee Par and Birdie classes.  Any child who desires to participate may be a part of The First Tee program, regardless of economic status.  One third of The First Tee of Greater Austin participants are on scholarship basis.  Children whose families cannot afford any extra expenses have the opportunity to apply for full scholarships.  The First Tee wants to keep children who have been involved with the program for a while to continue attending after school programs as well as summer camps, and encourage them to fill out applications for scholarship. 

Since many parents do not have the privilege of taking time off work to pick up their children and take them to the First Tee campus, The First Tee has partnered with Capitol Metro of Austin to arrange for a 15 passenger bus to pick children up from school and take them to the campus, where there is a classroom as well as a nine hole golf course with practice areas.   Between three and six PM is the highest juvenile crime rate in Austin, which is the time when children are out of school but their parents are not home from work yet.  This is the time that the First Tee wants to spend with these children, instilling in them important life values which they can then take with them and apply to their lives.  The hope is that when children are faced with gangs, drugs, or violence, they will remember some of the core values they have been learning and make the best decision based on the knowledge they have gained. 

Kids who participate in The First Tee of Greater Austin will spend time in a classroom setting as well as on the golf course.  There is a four to one mentor-to-student ratio.  In the classroom, mentors (many who are volunteers) teach children the nine core values through relating them to golf and life.  “We encourage the mentors to look for ‘teachable moments’ with the kids,” says Alan Wooley, Executive Director for The First Tee of Greater Austin.  For example, while teaching the value of respect, a teacher may talk about the “respect zone,” and explain where to stand in relation to another player while they are hitting.  While keeping the children engaged in discussion, they may then ask, ‘Where else can you show respect? To your parents, siblings, teachers…’  “We work the lesson we are teaching into how it pertains to real life.” says Alan Wooley.  


Whether inside the classroom or on the golf course, the program is activity driven, rather than demonstration driven.  An example of a game played on the golf course with the Par or Birdie level students is Tic Tac To.  The aim is to putt or chip the ball into the square that you want to have as your ‘X’ or ‘O’.  Wooley explained, “We really want the children to master the skill, not to have some abstract thought of it.” The First Tee of Greater Austin continues to encourage children to make good grades in school, and hopes to eventually have a learning center equipped to tutor children and help them with their school homework. The national First Tee program has the A/B Honor Roll program. The national organization encourages children to send in their report cards.  If students have made As or Bs, their name is posted on the national website and they are given a certificate.  Wooley noted that golf coaches from universities around the country have been using the First Tee’s A/B Honor Roll program to recruit student-athletes to their universities. 

Alan has seen firsthand how The First Tee of Greater Austin has made a difference in the lives of children and their families.  In teaching children the nine core values of the organization, the children go home and begin to live these values and teach them to their families.  While some childrens’ families can afford to buy the golf clubs, other children do not have the luxury.  The First Tee of Greater Austin will loan golf clubs to the children who need them and will even give a child a set of clubs if they have interest in the game. 


Mr. Wooley shared a First Tee story of a pairing of three young boys.  Two were from affluent families with brand new sets of Nike Tiger clubs and one boy whose family did not have the resources to buy clubs and was in the program on scholarship alone.  The First Tee lent the boy some clubs to play with that day.  When the two boys who had their own clubs were picked up by their parents, they expressed concern that the other boy did not have his own set of clubs to play with.  They gathered their toys and had a garage sale and, with the proceeds, bought the other boy a brand new set of clubs.  This is a wonderful example of the lesson of giving that is taught through The First Tee program.  Alan Wooley said that the shortened version of their mission statement is, “Golf is the game, life is the lesson.”


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