Maleyna Gregorio of First Tee-Coachella Valley plays in a nine-hole scramble golf event during the 2022 First Tee Leadership Summit.

In 2008, the First Tee-Coachella Valley program welcomed its first group of kids into the organization, which strives to “impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf,” according to First Tee’s mission statement.

One year later, a fledgling golf enthusiast named Maleyna Gregorio joined the program.

“I started with First Tee at 4,” said Gregorio, now 17, during a recent interview with the Independent. “They called us the ‘Little Linksters’ at that age. My parents decided it was a good idea, so I had no choice. … My father played golf, and it was a passion of his, so he wanted to pass on that skill, the journey and the game—to his kids. I was also a soccer player, but I just found that the values of golf were something that I wanted to take with me for a lifetime. So I decided that golf was going to be it.”

Despite unexpected challenges over the course of her childhood, she was recently one of just 40 young members of the national First Tee organization invited to attend the Second Annual First Tee Leadership Summit, held at West Creek Ranch in Montana. The event ran for two weeks in early August, with Gregorio one of 20 attendees to take part in the first week.

In an Aug. 3 media release by First Tee and partner PGA TOUR Superstore, the leadership summit was described as being “designed to strengthen leadership skills through dynamic outdoor and team-building activities with the intended purpose of personal growth, education and coming together to make a difference.”

Gregorio explained how she qualified for the summit.

“Starting back in January, our local PGA Superstore conducted a five-week leadership session where we had to learn about ourselves, about our peers, our passions and values,” Gregorio said. “At the end, we had a project that we had to present about what we wanted to do in the future, and what we wanted to take on in the world. … It was kind of like a 3-, 5- and 7-year plan that we had to lay out for ourselves. Obviously, I want to graduate from college and go to Q-School (the qualifying school for the LPGA Tour), but I also want to further women’s rights in the game. I want to continue working toward equality for women, and I also want to start a scholarship foundation—so that was what my presentation included.”

She applied for the leadership summit in March, and had to wait until June to find out if she’d made the cut. The word came via e-mail.

“I just remember seeing my name on that list, and I was beyond ecstatic,” Gregorio said. “Ironically, I was actually at the First Tee (office in Palm Desert), so I called my parents, ran and told my executive director—and we had a big party.”

Once Gregorio—who is heading to the University of California, Riverside, this fall on a golf scholarship—arrived at the site of the five-day summit, she was impressed by the breadth of experiences that awaited.

“Actually, I’d never done any of the activities that we (were scheduled to do), aside from golfing,” Gregorio said. “We went whitewater rafting in the Yellowstone River, and I actually almost drowned. Something went wrong with my life jacket and my helmet, and I was being choked while in the water. That was a very scary experience.

“One of the things that we focused on during the leadership summit was building relationships and knowing how to find a relationship through empathy, trust and vulnerability. I’d only known these people who were in the boat with me for two days, but I completely felt that I was going to walk out safe, because they were going to take me out. … I felt so safe that I got back in the water three more times, because I knew that they were going to take care of me. It was a guy who I had known for two days who pulled me out of the water.”

Indio’s Braden Bernaldo smiles with Maleyna Gregorio at the the Second Annual First Tee Leadership Summit.

Gregorio said some of the most memorable experiences took place at times when no events were scheduled.

“We went star gazing at 11 o’clock one night, and I’d never seen stars so beautiful before,” Gregorio said. “We actually saw the Big Dipper, and I saw two shooting stars. I’d never, ever seen anything like that in my entire life. Also, one day, we went on a two-hour horseback ride up through the mountains of Montana. I’d never seen nature like that before. I’d say those two (experiences) were the ones that were probably my favorites.”

One planned group session did surprise Gregorio with its impact.

“We sat down by the campfire, and we had to reflect on who we were when we first stepped onto the ranch, and who we are that day,” Gregorio said. “It got so deep and emotional, to the point where tears were being shed by everybody and everyone, and hugs were going around. We built a family there, and I think that’s something that’s very rare to come upon in such a short amount of time.”

In order to be where she is today, Gregorio had to overcome an unusual physical condition that struck while she was in the sixth-grade.

“A lot of rashes began to show up on my body one day, and it continually got worse and spread over (parts of) my body that were exposed to the sun,” Gregorio said. “I went to a lot of doctors in the valley, and no one could diagnose me, and no one could give me the right prescription to help me. I had to go to a Loma Linda expert, and one of their top dermatologists diagnosed me as having photodermatitis. … My first question was, ‘Can I still play golf?’ And, the answer was, ‘I don’t know.’ I think when you hear an expert say that to you, about something you’re so passionate about, the only thing you can do is keep asking questions.”

Fortunately, Gregorio’s family was there to help her navigate the difficult years ahead. She learned she’d always have photodermatitis—which is essentially an allergy to the sun.

“At that point, my mom said that health always comes first. So, we prioritized that,” Gregorio said. “I’m also a musician, and I play five different instruments, so I re-directed my time and my passion into being a musician. Being a musician allowed me to (stay) indoors, so I got many opportunities and many music scholarships that allowed me to have different experiences. But I always longed to be on the golf course again.”

So Gregorio and her family found a way.

“In 110-degree weather, my parents said that I had to wear long pants, long sleeves, long socks and a big bucket hat. I said, ‘OK,’” she said. “I did look different, and it got to the point where I was being bullied constantly, and being called names, because no one really knew what I had. There was a moment in time when I got back into golf and I absolutely hated it.

“But there’s this therapy where you sit out in the sun, and re-introduce your body to the sun again. Though (your body) never goes back to the way it was before, you can get acclimated.”

Gregorio said she had a few photodermatitis reactions while she was at the leadership summit.

“My parents weren’t there, but I know how to manage it now through ointments and medication. It’s given me a new perspective on life,” she said. “… I’m beyond grateful. It’s allowed me to grow. Luckily, about two years ago, I got back on the golf course, and from that point, I said I wanted to be a (Division 1 college) golfer. I can say that I’ve achieved that.”

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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...