The van with children from The First Tee of San Francisco was pulling into the parking lot Friday morning at Lake Merced Golf Club when one of the girls noticed something.
"It says ‘Members Only.’ Are we allowed here?" she asked Jonathan Lee, the program director for The First Tee of San Francisco.
Lee explained that, yes, the kids had been invited by the club to assist with the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior.
"But I don’t get it," said the girl. "The sign says ‘Members Only’ and my parents don’t make enough money to be a member here."
Walking to the clubhouse, Lee again explained that it was OK for the program members to be on the property.
All week, The First Tee participants, ages 7 to 17, have been volunteering. Thirty-five different kids have worked 46 shifts, doing everything from running scorecards during stroke-play qualifying, to collecting caddie bibs, to serving as standard bearers.
It’s been a win-win for everyone. The First Tee participants get to see a USGA national championship up close and the club receives valuable assistance.
"It’s been really great for a lot of the girls in our program," said Lee, who has been with The First Tee since graduating from San Francisco State University in 2004. "They see Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Olympic Club [during last month’s U.S. Open], but at 35 years old, they should be good. Here they got to see kids their own age playing at a high level."
And the First Tee kids not only worked the championship, but they also interacted with the players. Many were seen getting autographs from the contestants and posing for pictures. World No. 1 Lydia Ko, 15, of New Zealand, was a popular target for their affection.
"It changed their whole day," said Lee.
This wasn’t the first time participants from The First Tee were involved in a major golf competition. Some of the kids volunteered as standard bearers at last month’s U.S. Open, the recent Presidents Cup (TPC-Harding Park) and the two Charles Schwab Cup Championships held at Harding. Volunteers have also been used at the Web.com’s TPC Stonebrae Classic in Hayward, Calif.
"This one is easier to catch up with players," said 17-year-old Aaron Paulino, of South San Francisco, who also is interning this summer at Lake Merced. "At all the major [events], it’s kind of hard to catch up with them. But they’re both nice to do."
Paulino, who plays to a 7 handicap, has been with The First Tee for nine years and is headed to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to be in the Professional Golf Management program, with his eyes on hopefully becoming a head golf professional someday.
Asked how he would fare against these young female phenoms, Paulino just smiled. "I’d probably hang on," said Paulino, the standard bearer for the Ko/Alison Lee semifinal match Friday afternoon.
Others like 9-year-old Bailey Simon, of San Francisco, was just enjoying the beautiful surroundings while helping as a standard bearer during Friday morning’s quarterfinal match between Lee and Lauren Diaz-Yi.
Carrying a standard isn’t easy. In fact, Simon shared duties with two others, including 17-year-old Paulina Kang, who is hoping to land an internship at Lake Merced. Simon, who just started playing golf two months ago, did just fine, but she had her mind on lunch.
"The burgers here are so good," she said.
Food was a popular topic, especially for the younger First Tee participants.
Lake Merced also opened its doors for the kids. They could tour the clubhouse, interact with members and walk the property like any other spectator.
The club actually has been working closer with The First Tee in recent years, hoping to identify possible candidates for its Junior Merit program. Junior Merits Andrea and Alexandra Wong both came from The First Tee, but not directly to Lake Merced. Recently, 13-year-old Samantha Gong became the first Junior Merit to join directly from The First Tee, and Lee hopes others will follow.
The First Tee of San Francisco, which operates out of Harding Park and Visitacion Valley, has 1,500 participants. It also indirectly reaches 6,000 fifth-graders as part of an eight-day physical-education program within the San Francisco City elementary schools.
Lee said when it comes to volunteering, The First Tee tries to identify good candidates. Once they are targeted, the staff sometimes has to pick up the kids at their homes because they don’t have transportation.
On Friday, kids were picked up as early as 5:45 a.m. And if nobody came to the door or a child wasn’t appropriately attired, Lee had back-up plans to ensure all the volunteer spots were filled.
This week’s Girls’ Junior was so popular that some kids just wanted to come out and watch the golf on Friday. So Lee canceled classroom activities so more kids could enjoy Friday’s quarterfinals and semifinals.
A few told Lee they needed to play golf after watching these elite juniors.
In all, it was an experience few of the participants will never forget.
"For our girls just to see that, it just gives them inspiration and hope," said Lee. "They just loved it."
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.