When The First Tee was founded in 1997, the organization didn’t have a goal beyond providing more juniors access to the game.
“Our partners knew that introducing young kids to the game of golf would be inherently good for them,” said Joe Louis Barrow Jr., CEO of The First Tee since 2000. “It was a journey. We didn’t know from Day One what this journey would look like.”
Utilizing the nine core values they have learned, First Tee alumni have taken many life paths – from medical school to Qualifying School.
“We’re delighted to see so many alumni playing at the level where they want to try and qualify for the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open, and want to try and compete on the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour,” Barrow said. “However, we’re equally excited about our alumni who go on to be doctors.”
Golf is a popular career choice for First Tee participants, and four alumni will be teeing it up in U.S. Open Local Qualifying this year: professionals Christian Heavens, Clay Myers and Aaron Tyler Watkins, and amateur Austin Smotherman. Those making it to sectional qualifying will join PGA Tour rookie Scott Langley, who is exempt from local qualifying.
Langley already has qualified for the U.S. Open twice. As an amateur in 2010, he tied for 16th at Pebble Beach Golf Links, then tied for 29th last year at The Olympic Club as a professional.
“The U.S. Open is my favorite event every year,” said Langley. “My focus is always a little more elevated once I’m there. I think it’s important to have the mindset going in that it’s going to be difficult.”
All the alumni who have entered the U.S. Open can draw on their First Tee lessons and experiences. A bond shared by all five is the Nature Valley First Tee Open, which pairs a participant with a Champions Tour player. Each year, 81 First Tee participants are selected to play in the event, which takes place at Pebble Beach and Del Monte Golf Course.
Myers, an alumnus of The First Tee of Memphis (Tenn.), partnered one year at Pebble Beach with Loren Roberts, a longtime resident of Tennessee who not only offered career advice, but also led by example.
“He was a late bloomer himself, so he told me to be patient and to just make it simple,” said Myers. “His actions taught me a lot more than what he said to me, though. Watching him shoot 67, [I learned that] he made mistakes, but not big mistakes, and he made his putts.”
Myers also attended The First Tee’s Leadership Academy, a week-long summer program in which participants gain life skills and leadership training while living away from home.
The 2012 Southwestern Athletic Conference Player of the Year as a senior at Jackson State University, Myers now lives in Florida and is pursuing a golf career. He has entered the U.S. Open local qualifier at Shingle Creek Golf Club in Orlando on May 15.
“This is a good time for me to look at my game and see where I’m at competitively and figure out what route I’d like to take in the game,” said Myers, who qualified for the U.S. Amateur on his first try in 2012. “I try not to think about the magnitude of the event I’m playing in; I just try to focus on how I want to play the course.”
Smotherman, a freshman at Southern Methodist University who will be making his third attempt at U.S. Open qualifying, remembers the life skills taught to all participants before each of the organization’s competitions. Smotherman also participated in the Junior Advisory Committee, which helped with fundraising and operational improvements for his home chapter, The First Tee of Greater Sacramento.
“They taught us a lot about life skills and about overall improvement as a person,” he said. “There was a real emphasis on making you the type of person you want to be, and becoming the type of person the game of golf wants to attract.”
Several years ago, Myers, Langley and Smotherman were learning from others. Now, they are the role models for the next generation of First Tee participants.
“Hopefully younger guys can look up to me and say that if an unathletic kid from St. Louis did it, they can do it too,” Langley said. “It gives kids some hope and motivation.”
Scott Lipsky is the social media specialist for the USGA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.