It’s not every day that you have a Mayor of a bustling city, a World Golf Hall of Famer, and an Olympic athlete on the same first tee of a golf course. Yet, there they were: Mayor Steve Bach, golf legend Hale Irwin, and two-time Olympic weightlifter Wes Barnett standing together on the first tee at Valley Hi Golf Club. Joined by many other prominent figures from the Colorado Springs area, the three of them ushered in a new era in Colorado Springs, one that will likely have a great impact on the youth of the community for years to come.
On May 15, 2013 The First Tee of the Pikes Peak Region was officially launched, and it is currently on track to achieve the same level of success the 17-year-old program has enjoyed in other major cities. The First Tee, which since its inception in 1997, has impacted the lives of more than 7.6 million young people and exposed them to core values and life skills that will help them both on and off the golf course.
Program Director Katie Garcia and Program Coordinator Leighton Smith hope to do just that with the youth in Colorado Springs.
“One of the main reasons we wanted to have a First Tee Program in this region is to give the kids in the community a chance to learn the game and teach them the Nine Core Values,” says Garcia. The Nine Core Values are nine skills that are taught in all First Tee Programs. Coaches and volunteers teach the participants honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, and judgment. Garcia believes that when the kids learn these skills, the results are astounding. “After doing a summer of instruction, there was immense growth in both golf and life skills,” she states. “Overall, a lot of the kids really improved their self-confidence dramatically which was awesome to see.”
Another great aspect of The First Tee of Pikes Peak is the wealth of knowledge when it comes to the game of golf. Garcia is a graduate of the New Mexico State PGA Golf Management program and Smith is a graduate of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs program.
“It’s a great asset having PGA Professionals lead our program because a lot of chapters don’t have that benefit,” states Garcia. Smith agrees and says that having a PGA Golf Management program down the street at UCCS is a great asset. “Having the aspiring PGA professionals so close is great because we know we can get can high quality instruction from them with their knowledge,” he says. “That’s something every chapter isn’t able to have so we take advantage of it in every way we can.”
After going through their first summer of operation, the program had a very good turnout. UCCS PGA Golf Management student and media director Wes Levanduski thinks that although there is room for improvement, the chapter had a successful first summer. “We had a total of 165 participants come week in and week out ranging from ages 5 to 17,” he says. The chapter was also able to bring 12 participants to the Colorado Open Pro-Junior which was hosted at Green Valley Ranch Golf Club in Denver; an exciting opportunity both Garcia and Smith hope can be replicated a lot in the future.
Even with a solid amount of success this summer, Garcia still believes they can do better. “Just like with any new venture, we want to get the word out about this,” she states. “We did some good things with the Boys and Girls Club, and with our new 15,000-square-foot indoor facility that will open October 21st, we hope we can form even more relationships with youth groups in the community.”
Smith adds that the program has a ton of volunteer opportunities as well. “People think that they have to be good at golf to volunteer,” he says. “That isn’t the case at all. We are trying to build life skills for the kids and not just golf skills. Everyone has something to bring and just because you aren’t good at golf doesn’t mean we couldn’t use your help.”
By this time next year, Garcia hopes to have their numbers doubled or tripled and hopes to pair up with the National Schools Program; a First Tee version of Golf in Schools (golf instruction during physical education time or after school) to achieve those results. Regardless, The First Tee of Pikes Peak has shown that it has the potential to have a great impact on the city and its youth population. “We really couldn’t have done this without the support of the city as well as Mike Northern and his staff at Valley Hi Golf Course,” says Garcia. “With their help, we were able to get this program jumpstarted and we can’t wait to see where it will go in the next couple years.”