5 Star Stories: First Tee mentors next generation of golfers in Memphis

Published: Jul. 19, 2022 at 10:54 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - As the Mid-South gallery prepares for the arrival of some of the world’s top golfers for this year’s FedEx St. Jude Championship, there are thousands of local junior golfers who hope they’ll one day be on the PGA Tour leaderboard.

First Tee is where many of those young golfers are getting their start.

The newly-renovated green at the Overton Park Golf Course has hosted the Junior Open Golf Tournament since 1947.

Claire Hollingsworth, this year’s girls 16-17 champion, learned many of her winning ways through the game of golf.

“It teaches you patience, it teaches you like control, it teaches you how to keep your emotions in check and it teaches you, like even after a bad day you’re playing golf and it’s something you love,” Hollingsworth said.

First Tee, an international youth development organization, introduces thousands of kids to golf, “empowering them through love of the game.”

And the Memphis chapter is the leading organization in this area. Kaitlyn Hayes, a Chicago native and Regional Director for the Tennessee Golf Foundation, as well as the Senior Program Director for First Tee Memphis, is no novice to the organization.

“So I’ve been with First Tee since I was 9 all the way until I was 18, transitioned over to being a coach, then I went through the coaching program. (I) became one of the youngest recognized coaches in the First Tee network for a period of time, then a program coordinator, " Hayes explained, adding that along with golf lessons the First Tee, kids also learn the game’s inherent values.

“We teach key commitments formally known as life skills and core values through the game of golf. And golf is just our conduit to that. We want to make it social, and we want to make it fun and teach them the basic fundamentals to get them started,” she said.

Through the program, kids 4 to 18 years old, beginners and advanced, also learning to set up step-by-step goals, conflict resolution and plan for the future.

Retired PGA champion and Germantown resident Loren Roberts has been involved with the program since 1994 when it was called the Mid-South Junior Golf Association.

“Obviously golf’s been my life and I love to see kid’s playing golf,” Roberts beamed.

He said golf is also the only sport he’s aware of where individuals have to penalize themselves, meaning you have to know the rules, play by the rules, practice self-responsibility and know how to do the right thing.

Now a First Tee-Memphis Advisory Board member, Roberts also set up the First Tee in Memphis Scholarship Fund close to 30 years ago in 1994.

“I was back on the regular tour. I set that up years ago to just try to grow something to give some kids that were in the program that maybe weren’t good enough to get a scholarship to play somewhere, they’d also have a chance to get another scholarship to go to college somewhere to help them — Junior College or whatever. So, there was more options than just, you know, getting a golf scholarship,” he explained.

First Tee is also the charity arm of the PGA Tour.

“First Tee tries to be as inclusive as possible and give as much opportunities to the kids that you don’t usually think would usually have the opportunity to travel and meet and network with individuals within various industries in golf, because I don’t think anyone realizes how many industries are, like, really in golf,” expressed Hayes.

“People hear professional and they think, ‘Oh, I have to play professionally on tour.’ No. You can be a teaching professional, you can be a playing professional, or you can run a golf course, or you can even work like here for the City of Memphis. There’s a broadcasting portion that they work a lot with, like with ABC for the FedEx/St. Jude and they’re completely unaware of it, and with First Tee, they get a chance see that part,” added Hayes.

Junior golfer Phaith Harris is one of the many who have benefitted from the First Tee curriculum, pointing to critical thinking skills and precision as her most valued lessons.

“I started off by doing the Junior PGA League and the lessons and now I work there,” Harris said.

And then there’s the added bonus of a brother and sisterhood that extends beyond the green.

As Roberts pointed out, “... the great thing about golf is that anybody can have a game with anyone else because, with the handicap system or whatever, you can still go out and play with anybody because it’s a personal game, you know?” With Hayes adding, “We’re just here to have fun and, like myself, no matter how hard it gets, just keep going, you have family all over the place you don’t even realize that are here rooting for you. "

First Tee-Memphis is an after-school and in-school program at multiple courses throughout the Memphis metropolitan area, including Southaven, and Olive Branch, Mississippi, as well as Marion, Arkansas.

Some of the programs under the First Tee umbrella include: PGA Junior League, LPGA U.S. Junior Girls Golf Program and U.S. KIDS. It’s also part of the Tennessee Golf Foundation. And in the Bluff City, every card carrying First Tee-Memphis member plays for free at any city golf course. For more information about First Tee, click here.

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