By Dustin Turner
On a brisk March afternoon at The First Tee of Augusta, a group of students cheered each other on as they practiced putting a tennis ball on a golf green. Loud pop music played in the background. Obviously, this isn’t your average golf lesson and that’s okay with First Tee of Augusta Executive Director, Jill Brown.
“The main thing is to make sure the kids have a great experience and that they are actually learning the core values and apply them on the golf course and away from the course,” Brown says.
The First Tee of Augusta is one of more than 170 chapters of The First Tee, an international youth-development program designed to teach core values and life lessons through the game of golf. Children can attend First Tee programs from age 7 until they graduate high school. Much like Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, the participants progress through a series of levels by demonstrating The First Tee Nine Core Values, life skills, golf skills and by passing an assessment. All participants begin as Player and progress through Par, Birdie, Eagle and Ace.
Though the national organization sets the overall goals for the program, it is up to each chapter to determine the best way to integrate The First Tee’s Nine Core Values into a golf lesson. Those values are: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgement.
“We really do try to make it a seamless process,” Brown says. “The kids have been in school all day. They don’t want to come here after school for another lecture. We work hard to make it a seamless and engaging experience that ties together the life skills, golf skills and healthy habits. It’s our job to make this exciting, engaging and fun. We might have music playing and a golf course isn’t typically a place you would hear music. We have the freedom and liberty to be as creative as we want in teaching. If kids have a great time, they are more likely to grasp what’s going on and to want more.”
The nine core values are worked into situations on the golf course. “When we plan our classes, we are really conscious that we want those values to be the common thread,” Brown says. “We want young people to recognize those core values and when they can apply them in various situations. If we equip them with those tools, their future is going to be pretty bright.”
Even First Tee understands that golf can be expensive, which is why it keeps everything affordable. There is a $55 annual fee for student memberships (scholarships are available). Outside of class time, members can hit balls on the driving range for 50 cents per bucket and play the regulation six-hole course for $1. The driving range and course are open to the public. Anyone can come play six holes walking for $5 or hit a bucket of balls on the range from $5 to $10 dollars.
“We welcome any students who come to us,” Brown says. “We always provide fee scholarships. I never want anyone’s socioeconomic status to be a hindrance to their participation in the program. We never turn anyone away because they don’t have the money.”
The core values that are important to The First Tee of Augusta also are important to Brown, a mother of two, each of whom went through the First Tee program. “Because the core values are the ones that are important to me as an individual, it makes it very easy for me to work here. One of my favorite life-skills concepts that we teach is STAR – Stop, Think, Anticipate and Respond.”
This is how Brown explains it, “On the golf course, you are thinking about, “Here’s my shot. Here’s where it landed. Let me think about what my next shot will be.” You anticipate whether it will go well and you can respond accordingly. You think about real life and how you can apply that concept to everyday situations. So it’s our hope that by participating in our classes and on the golf course and in this environment that young people will take what they learn here and be able to carry that with them into the future to make good choices.”
Even after almost fifteen years as the executive director of First Tee of Augusta, Brown is quick to point out that she does not play golf. In fact, she had never heard of The First Tee. She was an engineer at Savannah River Site when a co-worker, whose wife was on the First Tee of Augusta board of directors, told her the Augusta chapter needed a marketing director. “I went to grad school for business so I knew a little about marketing but had no professional experience. I told him I wasn’t looking for a job,” Brown explains.
Later, she was told First Tee of Augusta was looking for an executive director and Brown thought, “That’s great. I’m STILL not looking for job and I’ve never heard of First Tee. So I thought I would just submit my resume if it would keep my co-worker from coming in and telling me about this place,” “They’re not going to be interested in hiring me and I’ll go back to a normal day’s work,” she says with a laugh.
Much to her surprise, Brown was called in for an interview. “After 3 interviews, they offered me the job. I accepted and I have enjoyed every minute of it. My inspiration is the young people. Once you meet them and see what their potential is, that inspires us to do great programming because we can have a positive impact on helping them meet their full potential. Being able to encourage them every day and push them to do their best and be their best is enjoyable work for me.”
Most of that programming takes place at the First Tee of Augusta facility just off Wrightsboro Road. There, coaches work with groups of students to teach them the basics of golf while incorporating the core values.
“Our coaches are like teachers with lesson plans,” Brown says. “With lesson plans, you know what you have to teach throughout the year. Now, how you teach it is totally up to you. Our coaches are trained though The First Tee home office and they get to develop the lesson plans for their classes. The curriculum of what needs to be covered and what the kids learn is evaluated and measured at every level so we have tools to measure how well the kids are doing and how well we are doing.”
In order to reach as many children as possible, The First Tee had to work differently than traditional golf lessons. “One on one is what golf is accustomed to but you can’t reach nearly as many kids that way so what we do looks a lot different. If we stuck individual lessons, you would end up with a bus load of kids that show up – fifty at a time and what do we do with that?, Brown asks. “First Tee has learned to teach golf in a higher volume than normal.”
In addition to teaching golf and life lessons at the Augusta facility, there is a school program in which PE teachers teach a modified version of the First Tee program. The program currently is being implemented in every elementary school in the Richmond, Burke, Columbia and McDuffie counties.
Brown expands, “We want to provide as great of a program experience as we can for the kids,” says Brown. “We’re in the process now of expanding programs to meet the needs of all the kids in our four-county service area. Right now, I don’t have enough coaches to do that so I’m trying to get over that hurdle. We are trying to staff up with enough coaches to be able to deliver great quality programming in those communities.”
Like any organization, it takes money to provide great programs and community outreach. The annual Rock Fore Dough concert during Masters Week is the First Tee of Augusta’s largest fund raiser. This year’s concert – the 14th – features country music star Scotty McCreery with guests Jordan Davis, DJ Rock and Shaun Piazza.
“We are always very grateful for artists who donate their time to come be a part of the lineup,” Brown says. “We are especially grateful to the community, who has supported Rock Fore Dough tremendously. As the executive director of First Tee, I can tell you it was never my intention to be in the concert business but we have had great support from folks like Joe and Emily Stevenson at GlueStick who have helped us navigate this and create a cool event.”
First Tee of Augusta also relies on donations from corporations and individuals in the community. Some of the organization’s biggest supporters have been the Masters Tournament Foundation and the Junior Invitational Golf Tournament Foundation.
“The best way to show our appreciation for that is to do the best job we can and reach as many young people as we can,” Brown reflects.
Although the main function of the First Tee of Augusta is to provide golf lessons infused with life lessons, Brown is quick to point out that the facility is open to the public “with most economical round of golf anywhere.” “I encourage any golfer to at least come out one time and check it out. It is a great gem of our community. We are the ONLY golf course in Augusta that doesn’t raise our rates during Masters Week. Can you imagine playing golf for $5 in Augusta during Masters Week? Put that on your bucket list,” Brown concludes.
For more information on First Tee of Augusta classes or to make a donation or volunteer, call (706) 364-4653 or go to www.thefirstteeaugusta.org. For more information on Rock Fore Dough, go online to https://rockforedough.com.
This article appears in the April 2018 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
Did you like what you read here?