Kids and teenagers in the Jackson area are learning golf and life lessons at the same time thanks to First Tee Central Mississippi. A recent grant from United States Golf Association allows the non-profit to expand its mission of serving the underserved.
First Tee Central Mississippi started in 2017 and marks the first and only chapter of First Tee in the state. The local chapter concentrates on Hinds, Rankin and Madison counties.
First Tee’s overall mission is to expand access to the game of golf while simultaneously empowering youth to face life’s obstacles. The lessons taught in First Tee classes reach beyond putter and ball.
Margo Coleman, executive director of the local chapter, said First Tee Central Mississippi uses “golf as a vehicle to teach core values and life skills.” Coleman emphasized that First Tee goes beyond a typical youth golf clinic. With each golf lesson, coaches incorporate a life skill.
The life lessons are catered toward a class’ particular age group and can range from responsibility to perseverance. A golf warmup for younger kids might be paired with lessons on the importance of listening to adults, turning in homework on time and keeping up with chores.
Kids in the First Tee programs are typically from underserved communities who may not be able to afford to play golf. To combat this inequity, First Tee participants never pay for lessons.
In early October this year, the USGA announced the 2023 winners of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility — or IDEA — grant, which provides up to $15,000 each to communities committed to breaking down barriers.
“From supporting chapters in major urban markets, mountainous regions and predominantly Hispanic communities to targeting low-income families across the county, the USGA and First Tee aim to level the playing field by providing club-in-hand experiences to every junior who wants to play golf and benefit from the character-building lessons the sport provides,” a USGA press release announcing the winners says.
First Tee Central Mississippi was one of the only southern chapters among the 27 recipients.
Coleman said the chapter plans to use the IDEA grant funds primarily to support and expand its partnership with the Grove Park Junior Golf Clinic. Grove Park is a 40-year-old organization operating on the Pete Brown Golf Course in Jackson.
The Grove Park clinic, which usually runs in the summer, aims to encourage young players to get interested in golf. Coleman said Grove Park is also committed to cultivating a diverse staff of different races and backgrounds.
First Tee Central Mississippi and Grove Park joined forces in 2021 and have fostered a growing partnership for the last two years.
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Coleman said the partnership’s first year was a great success and led to an even closer relationship the second year as First Tee staff got more involved in Grove Park classes. Now, as the third year of the merge reaches a close, the IDEA grant provides funds for coach stipends and programming supplies.
“We just keep getting stronger and stronger, and now it’s not like ‘Oh, Grove Park is with First Tee,’ it’s like, ‘Grove Park and First Tee are truly, truly partners,’” Coleman said.
The partnership also meant the Grove Park coaches now go through First Tee’s rigorous training and are expected to hold high standards when teaching kids. According the USGA press release announcing the recipients, the money, in part, is intended for the hiring and training of a diverse group of coaches.
The partnership has also been beneficial for Jackson in particular, since many of the First Tee and Grove Park classes take place on Jackson courses.
“The City of Jackson is also seeing how these two groups have come together to provide a positive experience for the kids,” Coleman said.
Why use golf to teach life lessons? Coleman said after a lifetime of playing golf, she has seen the necessary lessons the sport can hold.
“When you’re playing golf, you have to call penalties on yourself, which is integrity. You have to keep your own score, which is honesty,” Coleman said. “You have to learn patience, perseverance.”
Sportsmanship and responsibility are also among the lessons golf can teach as kids learn to play the sport fairly and avoid damaging the course. Another advantage is the game’s accessibility, given it does not require a team.
“There are a lot of sports out there, but in golf, you don’t have to have a team. It could just be you,” Coleman said.
This aspect, in particular, is a great fit for kids in the First Tee program, many of whom are on individual education plans or have a disability and might benefit more from an individualized sport.
Coleman considers golf a fair environment not reliant on skill level.
“I had a (participant) one time, and I asked him, ‘What does courage mean?’ And he said, ‘To be brave,’ and I think that’s something that our kids need to be,” Coleman said. “That little golf ball doesn’t care whether you’re a girl or a boy or what your race is or where you live. It’s all equal.”