FIRST TEE OF THE LOWCOUNTRY INSTILLS CORE VALUES IN KIDS THROUGH GOLF
The first time Nick Dunham volunteered to teach a program at the First Tee of the Lowcountry, he was hooked.
The Syracuse, N.Y., native came here to pursue a career in the golf industry as a student at Bluffton’s Professional Golfers Career College. What he found at First Tee was a way to use his love of golf to teach kids important life skills through the game.
“It’s just such a natural fit,” said the program director for the Hilton Head Island-based First Tee chapter, who was expected to leave the First Tee at the end of March to became a personal coach at GolfTEC training center in Wisconsin. “Sports in general teach you so many life lessons, but golf especially is an arena where we can apply so many facets of being a better person.”
The First Tee national program began in 1997 as a partnership between the LPGA, the Masters Tournament, the PGA of America, the PGA Tour and the USGA to make golf more affordable and accessible to kids. The Lowcountry chapter has been a national leader in spreading the program’s curriculum since building its six-hole, par 3 Gumtree Road facility next to the Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head in 2016.
Dunham has worked with executive director Patrick Zuk and a team of more than 100 volunteer coaches and board members to grow the program’s reach exponentially each year.
The center of that learning is the program’s nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment. The program has evolved to incorporate healthy habits as well — everything from having fun and staying safe while playing, to good nutrition practices, setting and achieving goals, and developing social and problem-solving skills.
MORE THAN 14,000 LOWCOUNTRY STUDENTS PARTICIPATED IN THE FIRST TEE SCHOOL PROGRAM IN 2019 AND MORE THAN 550 PARTICIPATED IN THE LIFE SKILLS CLASSES.
The learning happens through school-based class lessons and in-person programs, school at the Hilton Head facility and at participating golf courses like Eagles Pointe, Crescent Pointe and Olde Beaufort Golf Club.
Physical education teachers at most of the Beaufort and Jasper county schools have helped incorporate the First Tee program into their PE classes — both in training teachers in the curriculum and providing equipment to practice. The result: more than 14,000 Lowcountry students used the First Tee school program in 2019. First Tee also provided an online curriculum during the COVID shutdown.
First Tee’s six- and eight-week in-person Life Skills classes ($75 for full program) run throughout the year. The class meets for an hour each week and focuses on equal parts game instruction and core value integration.
“It’s amazing how easily the life skills fit into the game teachings. The kids are having fun and just absorb these lessons as they’re having fun learning the game,” Dunham said. “Simple things like good sportsmanship or how to react after hitting a bad shot; it’s just so natural to help prepare these kids for life through golf.”
More than 550 kids are participating in the Life Skills classes.
First Tee is busy preparing for the program’s series of one-week summer camp programs ($150 per week), which provide 10 hours of more intensive teaching and on-course experience.
The course and driving range have been one of the hidden gems of the local golf community since opening to the public in 2017. Everyone has unlimited access to the course and the driving range for a small donation ($10 for adults, $5 for kids per visit).
Dunham said his five years with First Tee have set him up for a fulfilling career in the golf industry.
“To see the maturity and the progression, to see the light bulbs go on and see them realize how much they can accomplish in life with these core values as a foundation, it has been an incredible experience,” said Dunham, who noted his time at the First Tee was an “incredible” experience that he will “cherish” and never forget.
There have been plenty of kids both locally and with the national program who aspire to play the game at a higher level.
But for the vast majority, First Tee is the initial spark in their love of the game and in believing what they can achieve in their future.
“That’s a powerful combination that we are so proud to be part of,” Dunham said. “Our volunteers are committed and so passionate because we know we’re making a difference.”
For more information, visit firstteelowcountry.org.