Teaching kids life skills through golf

By Seth Litwin / El Inde

Judy McDermott watches as kids stagger through the gates of the First Tee of Tucson facility at El Rio golf course, a public golf course located just 10 minutes from the University of Arizona. El Rio was built in the 1930’s as a private golf course until the city of Tucson took over in 1968 and made it into a public course.

“We aren’t trying to create professional golfers, we are just trying to create good corporate citizens,” executive director of First Tee, Judy McDermott said. 

The property is flat and standing in the parking lot you can almost see the entire course. The clubhouse is slightly run down and the inside is in need of a makeover. The bar area looks stuck in the early 2000s, but it gives off a classic charm of a course that is almost 100 years old. There isn’t a fancy driving range or putting green but rather, a sense of accessibility to various people you cannot find elsewhere. 

The children come from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. At First Tee no one is prevented from a chance to learn how to play golf. Some children have experience in the sport and show up in full golf attire, while others are beginners ready to try a new activity. Their lack of experience doesn’t stop McDermott, the employees or the volunteers from greeting every child.

Practice was scheduled to start at 10:00 AM but not everyone arrived until about 10 minutes after. Class starts with a brief check in and a refresher of what players learned in the previous class. Using golf as a guide, these students are being taught life lessons. For example, honesty is everything since there is no referee or umpire; golfers are tasked with calling penalties themselves. The First Tee shows how honesty is imperative to a fair game. Each child must write in their little scorebook a time when they were honest and a time when it was hard to be honest. 

While the First Tee is golf and sports-oriented, its main purpose is to teach kids life skills through the game of golf, getting more kids involved in the game without having to put too much strain on the parents. Which is why they try to keep costs low by lending the children clubs.

The First Tee works with 3.6 million children nationally. They are partnered with giants in the golf industry: the LPGA, PGA TOUR, PGA, USGA and the Masters. While the pandemic shut down contact sports, golf boomed as one of the few athletic activities that can be done at a distance and outside. The First Tee has seen its numbers rise and waiting lists stack up — alongside a shortage of volunteers.

Due to the nature of the game, integrity is necessary. For example, if you lose a ball, you must have the honesty to say it is gone, the proper judgement to know where you can drop your penalty shot, the respect for the game by following the rules and the integrity to tell your playing partners what happened. All those lessons can easily be crossed over to other aspects of life, like school and how to treat others. The course offers kids an escape, a chance to be active and serves as a safe space for many who have uncertainties on the home front. 

“It was a lot of paperwork and things to get the chapter developed and working with the home office, they don’t just let anybody have a chapter. And every year it’s something different on how they grade us,” McDermott said. The First Tee’s national office is constantly changing curricula and offering new ways to interact with the children. Think of it as a McDonald’s franchise that is always getting new menu items from headquarters. 

Not anyone can decide to one day start a chapter. The process takes about two years and you have to become a nonprofit. That doesn’t include getting a facility, connecting with different courses, finding employees and volunteers and recruiting children to become part of the program.    

During a class you can find McDermott taking pictures or talking to a child. She has lived a life of golf — growing up in Southern California, McDermott started playing since she was a little girl, competing in junior golf tournaments. This is where her enthusiasm for junior golf started. She was good enough to play at UCLA.

“I was not a star by any means, but to still get on was great,” McDermott said. The opportunity to be on the team offered her connections with people she would use down the road. Plus, to be able to play D1 golf you have to be an elite player. While at UCLA, she started to get involved with their athletics program and worked in their central tickets office. McDermott credits this for teaching her how events are run, how to market and how to sell tickets. McDermott also helped run their Mardi Gras event which she compared to University of Arizona’s Spring Fling.

After graduation in the 80s, McDermott worked for an event company but then her boyfriend suggested she should get back into the golf industry. McDermott started an unpaid internship for an LPGA Tournament in Southern California and after three to four months she told the directors she had to find a paying job. Seeing her as vital, they offered her a job.

“And kind of the rest was history,” McDermott said.

She jumped around a few different tournaments in California until the Tucson Conquistadores, a group of business professionals, found her. They now help run the Cologuard Classic and a foundation that donates thousands of dollars each year to different youth programs in Tucson.

  The First Tee of Tucson’s building on Speedway Avenue. Photo by Seth Litwin / El Inde.

Their goal is to get every child in Tucson to go through the program. They market themselves as a place for children to learn sportsmanship and ethics — not a place for harsh unforgiving competition.

The First Tee of Tucson receives its lesson plans from the Atlanta headquarters. “We are a small non-profit and it is a full time job just to manage, recruit and retain,” McDermott said. “Some volunteers require a lot of attention, and if you look at them sideways, they may leave. Some really want to teach golf skills and don’t really teach life skills.” 

Volunteers commit to show up once a week for six weeks. McDermott admits the training can be a lot and may drive some people away, while volunteers must also go through a background check. Vicky Gonzalez, who is in charge of volunteers, says they have some who are younger and in college, yet most are older retirees. An older volunteer base offers much to the students but sometimes they have a hard time connecting with a younger audience. Younger volunteers can find connections simply by having grown up in similar circumstances, allowing them to know how to better help them.  

After a full day of practice, everyone made a big socially-distanced circle, spending the last few minutes reviewing the day’s lessons on honesty and discussing any rule issues that may have risen during the par three course. Then the children were released back to their parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, babysitters or whoever came to pick them up. Just 25 minutes later, new children arrived. This group showed more experience and excitement to play golf. Maybe, proof that the First Tee and their lessons are working.  

El Rio is a flat golf course making it great for beginners learning the game. 
Photo by Seth Litwin / El Inde.


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