Ariana Saenz epitomizes what it means to grow up through the First Tee, a nonprofit organization of roughly 150 chapters that prides itself in teaching children life skills alongside golf instruction.
Saenz, born and raised in Houston, Texas, endured open-heart surgery at 3 years old to mend two holes in her heart that doctors hoped would have closed naturally in the first two years of her life. Her father, Jesus, worked two jobs to help pay the medical bills and still made time to join his wife, Maria, in visiting their daughter every day during her four-month recovery in the hospital.
Coincidentally, that uncertain time led to Ariana playing golf and eventually spending 10 years in the First Tee of Greater Houston chapter.
“The doctors told my parents that I needed to get up and move around because I had been laying in bed a lot,” Ariana said. “So my dad went to the nearest convenience store and bought me a set of plastic golf clubs. I would walk around my room and the halls of my house swinging the clubs, and then when I recovered, I would tell my parents that I wanted to play on the course.”
Ariana started in the First Tee program at age 7 and continued until graduating from high school. It became a family tradition, as Jesus would serve as a volunteer and her younger sister Isabella was introduced to the program as well. Ariana evolved into a junior mentor, helping to teach some classes alongside her dad while participating in others. Although she graduated from being a participant when she attended college, Ariana is still involved. This past summer, she served as an intern for the First Tee of San Antonio to help with camps.
The First Tee is built upon nine core values, and while golf instruction is an important part of what a child learns, the real focus is on character development. I was fortunate enough to serve as a Level 1 coach for the First Tee of Broward County in South Florida over the course of three years, and I consider those nine-week sessions I delivered to be among the most gratifying moments of my life. Golf alone can make a difference for someone, but having a serious talk with kids about the definition of integrity is a rare opportunity to engage with them on a personal level. It was clear that, unlike in Ariana’s case, some of them were not having those conversations at home. Roughly 48 percent of First Tee chapter participants are Black, Asian, Latino/Hispanic or another minority group, and there are varying backgrounds across all participants.
Speaking with Ariana reminded me of many of the kids from my chapter. She talks with a tremendous amount of confidence and belief. There is zero doubt the First Tee played a legitimate role in the bright future she is heading toward.
“I think one of the most profound and important things that the First Tee teaches you is respect,” she explained. “It’s respect for yourself, respect for others and respect for your surroundings. I take that with me wherever I go. And confidence is probably one of the ones I strive the most for playing the game at a high level. It’s very challenging because you lose more than you win in golf. So it’s hard to keep that confidence. But it’s something that you need to have because it’s hard to be successful if you don’t believe in yourself.”
“Some kids come through it for physical development, some come through it for the values, some come in for golf instruction and then there are some who might migrate a little more towards the academic enhancements that help them through high school and college. The program is all of those things.” – Greg McLaughlin
Today, Ariana is a senior on the University of Houston golf team. A recipient of a full scholarship, she has twice been named to the American Athletic Conference All-Academic team and plans to graduate next fall as she works toward a master’s degree in human resources. As she finishes her master’s, Saenz plans on being a volunteer assistant for the golf team. She is still considering whether she wants to go into the HR field or pursue college coaching, but both are inviting options.
This is just one example of how the First Tee has flourished in its 25 years of existence, the silver anniversary being celebrated throughout this year. Former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was the main leader back in 1997, but the USGA, PGA of America, LPGA and Augusta National Golf Club all came together in support of the program. The First Tee looks far different than it initially did, and it’s been among the many organizations that have been forced to adapt through several challenges, such as the pandemic and changing patterns of how kids learn.
Greg McLaughlin took over as CEO of the First Tee Foundation and World Golf Foundation in November of 2018. He said the organization went through a rebranding process in 2019, took on increased youth security measures and, even more importantly, had to evaluate the efficacy of the curriculum.
“The way kids learn today is much different than (the way) they learned 20 years ago,” McLaughlin said. “We hired an independent group out of Washington, D.C., Bridgespan, and they did a nine-month review of the curriculum that includes chapter level, at the school level and then also at our youth-serving organizations. And they came back with a really robust recommendation on more enhancements to the program, the largest enhancement being a commitment to technology and reaching more kids through an app and reaching more kids through programs that can be taught online.”
The pandemic slowed the First Tee’s rollout of implementing an app where coaches and players can track progress. Right now some of the technological advancements are being piloted in a few of the chapters and it will take 12 to 18 months for it to reach all 150 chapters.
Another recent addition is a need- and merit-based college scholarship program. Kids receive financial assistance while also being paired with a mentor, coaching different First Tee sessions and coming to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, twice per year to gain experience in résumé writing, interviewing and other professional development opportunities. McLaughlin said they are about to announce their third class of kids, around 50 participants total, and some of them are headed to institutions such as Yale, Harvard and Georgetown.
Another improvement is the formation of a First Tee National Championship. Last year, the event was held at Clemson, this year it is headed to Notre Dame and soon it will be going to Stanford. One of the criticisms of the First Tee has been a lack of focusing on golf skill development, but that concern has slowly faded in the past handful of years as former alums Cameron Champ and Austin Smotherman are now PGA Tour players, while participants such as Ariana have consistently gone on to play college golf. The national championship is another showcase for that.
“The kids have the opportunity to see that college experience,” McLaughlin said. “Our overall program is really designed for all of the above. Some kids come through it for physical development, some come through it for the values, some come in for golf instruction and then there are some who might migrate a little more towards the academic enhancements that help them through high school and college. The program is all of those things.
“When you look back after 50 years, we would like kids that participate in the program to certainly continue to play golf, to watch golf on TV, to attend golf tournaments … that is all critical. But the program is also more than being a junior golfer. We want to promote good students and be a character-development program to help them be great people. It’s one of the most comprehensive programs, and it’s more than a junior golf program.”
The First Tee has recently launched in Canada and is also in South Korea, Japan, Mexico, Australia and Morocco. The 2019 calendar year was a high-water mark in terms of participation, and that dipped sharply during the pandemic because the school program essentially shut down. Last year, the participation climbed to about 80 percent of the 2019 numbers.
The feeling is that by 2023, they should return close to the maximum capacity of the program, which is roughly 3.5 million participants. There are 1,400 program locations, 11,000 participating schools and some 1,700 youth-serving centers such as Boys and Girls Clubs. Some 20,000 executive directors, staff members, coaches, volunteers and others are required to keep the operation moving forward.
From all of those participants, there are now thousands and thousands of stories like Ariana’s. Anyone involved in the program remembers how they felt teaching, participating, mentoring or serving in any other capacity.
It’s been 25 years of those feelings, and that is something to celebrate.
Photos: Courtesy First Tee
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