First Tee program grows to almost 800 participants

Executive Director Evon Sanders chats with Juswin Judge, a sixth grader in St. Joseph, about putting at Harbor Shores as part of The First Tee program.
Sarah Wisneski tells these youthful First Tee golfers at Blossom Trails Golf Club what activities are ahead. There are over 100 volunteers according to Executive Director Ebon Sanders.

First Tee program grows to almost 800 participants

By Tom O’Neill

            From humble beginnings at the Boys and Girls Club in Benton Harbor with 24 golfers in 2005, The First Tee program is close to 800 youngsters according to Ebon Sanders, executive director.

            “The majority of kids, about 600, are at Blossom Trails,” Sanders said.  “The rest are at Harbor Shores.” The youngest at Blossom Trails range from 5-9. “We really don’t use age groups,” explained Sanders. The first level is PLAYer, starting about 5-years old with an introduction to golf. The next level is PAR, focusing on interpersonal and self management skills on the course followed by BIRDIE. This group learns how to set goals and make them become a reality. EAGLE is next around age 13 working on conflict resolution and future planning. The top level is ACE. It involves career education and giving back. Sanders said participants graduate to different levels based on their abilities.

            Jessica Tomasi of Stevensville has two children, Isabella (7) and Luciano (6), in their second year with the program. She discovered the program through a friend. “I like how they focus on life skills, build confidence and being a good sport.”

            Cindy Igoe of St. Joseph has her five-year old son, Emmett, in the program. “My older daughters did the first year at the Boys and Girls Club. It’s much improved“. Emmett’s favorite part is driving the golf balls and riding in the cart.

            Joe Campbell, lead coach for the PLAYer and PAR levels, says they’ve learned working with the young ones “to keep things moving.” Each activity is about 12 minutes. “We try to find activities and games they’ll like.”

            Program director, Ryan Burns, says everything ties in with the program’s core values. “Life skills are first, golf is second. We meet before each session, do a review and then preview that day’s session.” Burns added.

            The older kids, about 11-18, are more focused on the game itself. There are mini tournaments including two-person teams playing in Ryder Cup format at the Harbor Shores facility. As these kids move up in their programs, in addition to practicing golf skills, one might see them working at the course, being standard bearers at the Senior PGA or selling programs.

            “The ACE level is the highest. There are six at this level,” noted Sanders. Those players include Cailey Rooker, Logan Essig, Mason Dirlam, Ryan Gusso, Davis Longyear and Logan Heckathorn.

            The local program is having a banner year nationally. Rooker was a finalist in an essay contest, winning a trip to Wilmington, N.C. for the Senior PGA Wells Fargo Championship, which included a pro-am and walk inside the ropes on Sunday with Phil Mickelson and Billy Hurley.

 Then Rooker, Dirlam and Essig were announced as participants in the PURE Insurance Championship, a PGA Champions Tour event at Pebble Beach Golf Links in September with 78 other youngsters from across the country.

“When Ebon called I really thought he was messing with me,” Essig said. “Then people started texting me. I never thought I’d play there. It was completely unexpected.”

“This is one of the biggest things to happen,” Burns said. “We couldn’t have better faces for the program.”

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