The sun is descending behind the San Jacinto Mountains as the classroom portion of the daily First Tee of the Coachella Valley program gets under way in the pro shop/education center of the First Tee golf course in Palm Desert.
“I show respect for my surroundings by picking up trash wherever I see it,” declares James, a member of the “Player 3” group (ages 7 to 9). He is addressing his fellow First Tee students, a few parents, lead instructor Jeff Harrison and LPGA-USGA program director Amy Anderson.
This group is learning how to incorporate into their daily existence the “nine core life values” emphasized by the program. Instilling these character traits in each and every participant is the primary mission of the First Tee staff here in Coachella Valley—and all of the chapters worldwide.
“We want to make them good citizens,” says executive director Glenn Miller. “I don’t really care if they become great golfers.”
The First Tee international organization lists the United States Golf Association, the PGA, the PGA Tour, the LPGA and the Masters Tournament as founding partners. So wouldn’t it be correct to assume that another underlying objective is to develop the next Tiger Woods or Stacy Lewis to represent U.S. golf on the international stage? “No, I don’t think that’s the case,” insists Miller. “Of all the young people who come through our program, I’d say about 99.9 percent of them will never be great golfers. Fair to good, probably, if they keep playing. But the next Tiger Woods? Well, it could happen, but that’s not what our program is focused on developing.”
That focus is on teaching students the appreciation of, and adherence to, the values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment in every aspect of an individual’s life. In addition to these basic “nine core life values,” the Coachella Valley chapter has incorporated instruction about “nine healthy habits.”
“We’re trying to get our kids to eat better, walk more and do things that are healthy for them,” Miller says, “get them to think about eating apples, grapes, oranges and yogurt rather than only potato chips and soda.”
In order to promote the budding self-esteem of committed participants, at the end of each school semester, the First Tee national office honors all participants who present a school report card showing an A/B level of achievement by presenting them with a certificate for their hard work and perseverance.
“Our First Tee team focuses heavily on the A/B scholar classroom accomplishments of our youngsters,” says Miller. “We’re looking for transformation in how they conduct themselves. We get input from the parents who tell us how much more reliable, confident and poised their child becomes, and we get great satisfaction from that feedback.”
First Tee was founded in 1997; Coachella Valley’s chapter started up in 2007. Palm Desert City Council members Dick Kelly (who passed away in 2010) and Robert Spiegel (who still serves on the council) were the catalysts in bringing First Tee to the valley under the supervision of the Desert Recreation District. They supervised the ownership transfer of the current 27-hole, par-three First Tee home golf course on Sheryl Avenue, just off Cook Street, from the city of Palm Desert to the Desert Recreation District. The program’s reach into the community has grown rapidly since then.
“We have about 1,350 student participants enrolled in all phases of our program in 2013,” Miller says. “They range in age from 4 years old to 18. We have four full-time instructors and about 150 volunteers who give regularly and generously of their time and effort. In each of our sessions, which are categorized by age and learning accomplishment, we have one instructor or volunteer present for every four students.”
The First Tee depends on community support for almost all of its operational funding as well. “The First Tee national organization contributes roughly $20,000 per year to our chapter,” Miller says. “So we rely almost completely on our fundraising success. The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation was one of the first supporters to come to the table. Also, the Houston Family Foundation and the First Foundation have been strong contributors.
“Most of the funds that come in are utilized for equipment and scholarships for a lot of our youth,” Mr. Miller continued. “We don’t turn anyone away—we just don’t. We want to make First Tee available to any kid in the valley who would like to learn golf and those core values that come with it. The challenge is: How can we help them succeed in life?”
Assistance comes from several of the golf and country clubs in Coachella Valley. “The people at the Springs Country Club have been a godsend for us!” says Miller. “All together, they’ve raised some $200,000 through their fundraising tournaments for the First Tee. Our kids have access to play at the Classic Club, Desert Winds in 29 Palms and the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage.
“The Marrakesh Country Club has welcomed our kids, and this Dec. 14, they’re staging their inaugural First Tee Golf and Putting Tournament benefit. And next Feb. 15, for the first time, we’ll be staging our annual First Tee Benefit Golf Tournament and fundraiser at the Bermuda Dunes Country Club.”
Given the First Tee’s strict policy that its students demonstrate the core values of honesty, integrity and responsibility at all times, what is the official First Tee stance on the use of mulligans during a round of golf?
Miller pauses for a second. He then diplomatically replies, “Mulligans are very good for fundraisers.”
For more information on the First Tee of the Coachella Valley, visit www.thefirstteecoachellavalley.org, or call 760-779-1877. Memberships are $120 per year, although discounts and scholarships are available based on income.
Below: First Tee of the Coachella Valley executive director Glenn Miller: “Of all the young people who come through our program, I’d say about 99.9 percent of them will never be great golfers. … That’s not what our program is focused on developing.”