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First Tee Makes Second Attempt in Utah
BY Kurt Kragthorpe
The Salt Lake Tribune
The young, diverse audience wanted answers on that summer day while visiting Rose Park Golf Course. Unfamiliar with golf, children asked Jack Nicklaus why so many holes were cut into the practice green and why flags of varying colors appeared around the course, among other subjects.
Eight years later, the question is why The First Tee of Salt Lake City’s chapter could not sustain itself after the opening celebration that featured Nicklaus’ appearance. Utah eventually became one of only two states not involved with The First Tee, designed to introduce golf and its values to youth — including those who ordinarily would not be exposed to the game.
Yet as another round of The First Tee commercials air during the U.S. Open, there is hope for the program’s revival locally. Led by former Jazz general manager Tim Howells, a group is working toward the formal creation of The First Tee of Utah. The headquarters would be Golf in the Round, an extensive practice facility with a nine-hole course in South Salt Lake.
“We’re excited about Utah coming back to the network,” said Henry Sandles, the program’s Mountain Region director.
In many respects, Utah is starting over. A short-game practice area at the Jordan River Par 3, adjacent to Rose Park, was professionally designed and built largely through a $100,000 grant from the United States Golf Association.
The facility, now minimally maintained, symbolizes the good intentions of those who tried to make the program work.
“We had a fair number of teenagers that really got into it,” said Leann Saldivar, president/CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Salt Lake City. “We always thought The First Tee program had a lot of merit, but it definitely needs legs to carry it forward.”
That means financial backing, mostly. Alan Seko, president of The First Tee of Salt Lake City, cited the “money issue” as a primary shortcoming. “We were scraping by,” Seko said. “Grant money in this town is hard to come by, unless you’ve been around for a few years.”
With support from golf bodies and sponsors, The First Tee has capitalized on opportunities to spread its message during tournament telecasts, notably the U.S. Open. The spots illustrate the values the program espouses, extending beyond the mere satisfaction of hitting a golf ball.
That’s what Howells likes about the game and The First Tee, which “just happened to be something that hit my hot button,” he said.
Howells, 65, is about 11 years removed from a decade of working under longtime friend Larry H. Miller as the Jazz’s general manager. As the chapter’s executive director, Howells has assembled a board led by president Brad Baldwin, who was heavily involved in Utah’s Champions Tour event, last staged in 2002 in Park City.
While trying to attract a founding partner and other corporate support, The First Tee of Utah is planning a kickoff event in late September at The Country Club of Salt Lake City. Howells believes his own “determination to see it succeed” and the board’s connections and fund-raising ability can make the program thrive with an annual budget approaching $200,000.
So does Sandles, who tried to help salvage the initial attempt and cites the national organization’s improved training and support mechanisms. “We didn’t have all that in place before,” Sandles said. “We weren’t in position to help chapters back then as much as we are now.”
In the meantime, programs in Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County partially have filled The First Tee’s void. Chevron shifted its sponsorship to Salt Lake City’s program, offering scholarships to four-day youth clinics. Golf pros Derek Schmehl of Rose Park and Dave Carter of Glendale have reached out to neighboring youth organizations, and the city’s recreation department has modeled The First Tee, using limited-flight balls at parks and playgrounds.
The First Tee of Utah hopes to tie everything together and expand throughout the state. The Utah Section PGA is tied in with the effort, promoting interest and training teachers.
About the program
Launched in 2003, The First Tee of Salt Lake City was among the first 120 chapters founded nationally, but eventually dissolved. The program now lists some 250 chapters.
Administrators of The First Tee of Utah intend to spread the program around the state, using elementary schools.
The First Tee’s nine core values: Honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.