The First Tee of Memphis – a program designed to combine etiquette with the game of golf – incorporates life skills through golf while creating an all-inclusive, future-oriented environment.
What is golf?
Ask anyone familiar with the sport and they may give you the formal definition – “a game played on a large open-air course, in which a small hard ball is struck with a club into a series of small holes in the ground, the object being to use the fewest possible strokes to complete the course.”
But if you ask one of the students participating in the First Tee program they will tell you this: “Golf is Integrity, Sportsmanship, Respect, Confidence, Responsibility, Perseverance, Courtesy, Judgment and Honesty.”
These are the organization’s “Nine Core Values.”
“The kid is so much more important than the golf swing” reads a quote from Charles Hudson, founder of the Mid-South Junior Golf Association, that’s front and center on the First Tee website. Hudson founded Mid-South Junior Golf Association (MSJGA) in 1991 at the Pine Hill Golf Course, where Hudson was the golf pro. In 1998, the MSJGA – initially set up for juniors ages 5-18 – signed a letter of intent to become the Memphis First Tee chapter.
Today, about 350 kids are committed to live daily by First Tee values and there is evidence that suggests they will be successful. The organization touts a 100 percent graduation rate at the high-school level. About 80 percent continue on to college, with the other approximately 20 percent entering into the work world or going into trade programs. In addition, participants have earned $16,000-plus in scholarships.
“We think we’re the best kept secret in Memphis,” said First Tee of Memphis Executive Director Nyrone Hawkins.
“Over the past 12 to 15 years in Memphis, I’ve been working for non-profits in the inner city with kids,” Hawkins said of his roles before joining the staff at First Tee of Memphis. “I was attracted to the position at First Tee of Memphis because it gave me the opportunity to work with a broader and more diverse group.”
In 2001, the Bridgestone Firestone Trust Fund partnered with the city and county and First Tee to create an ambitious project on the old Firestone plant site located in the North Memphis community known as New Chicago. With a challenge gift of $3.5 million, First Tee set out to build a world-class life skills and leadership training facility featuring a computer lab, club repair shop, classrooms, full swing machine, library, 9-hole golf course and a complete golf learning center.
Since then, First Tee has gained significant support from the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour and the USGA. Its graduates have received academic and athletic scholarships and have come back to help the local program and programs across the country. Its students and the program have been featured in national golf magazines and sports pages. And one of the program’s graduates, Mirrissa Anderson, will be entering college early. During the 2014 FedEx St. Jude Golf Classic, Anderson served as a caddy to professional golfer Phil Mickelson.
“They get to play a sport that they will have in their lives forever,” Hawkins said.
The life of the program for students ranges from five to seven years, depending on their entrance date. They come from myriad walks of life around the Memphis area and no child is turned away. Hawkins and the First-Tee family believe that maintaining a relationship that extends beyond the program is important and many of the participants form life-long friendships.
“We’ve created a unique bond – a family environment. My motto is you’ll always be family. We’ve surrounded our organization with other adults who care about kids,” Hawkins said. “When kids know you care about them, they will come back.”
Attorney Arthur E. Horne III spent time as a youth in the Mid-South Junior Golf Association, now First Tee.
“The main thing that it did is it exposed me not only to the game of golf but to older African-American men who were professional (doctors, lawyers, accountants, politicians, etc.) people. A lot of them worked closely with the program because they were golfers themselves,” Horne said.
“I was active with the program years after I became a lawyer. I still mentor some of the kids in the program.”
Horne said “the whole program of being around educated positive individuals” influenced him to strive for greatness and to excel in everything that her tried to do, whether it was golf or school or business or his law career.
“I think it is a great introduction for children to the game of golf and I think that children, particularly African-American children, need to be exposed to the game because most people that go into business play golf,” said Horne.
“Business deals are made on the golf course. Business contacts are made on the golf course. Relationships are built on the golf course. So having golf in your arsenal of things that you can do and do well will help any of these young people succeed in their lives.
“It’s a great way to network,” he said. “From a cultural standpoint, it’s great to know how to do some non-traditional sports and golf is one of those non-traditional sports.”