First Tee tees off in a big way |

First Tee tees off in a big way

Susan Milhoan/Special to the DailySo how did Tiger Woods get to be so good? One swing at a time.

EAGLE COUNTY ” A kid about the size of a 9-iron smacks a golf ball and winces as it slices to his right. He has learned a life lesson ” put your mistakes behind you and deal with what’s in front of you.

First Tee taught him that.

The First Tee program provides young people of all backgrounds an opportunity to develop life skills by introducing them to golf and all they can learn from it.

It’s not complicated. The Youth Foundation runs the local First Tee chapter and the organization’s Susan Milhoan and Gail Malloy say they have it down to four basic points.

Kids have to be (1) known, (2) needed, (3) cared for and (4) have an active part to play in their community. Milhoan and Malloy says it’s a perfect fit with the Youth Foundation’s values.

This was Eagle County’s first year and more than 550 kids showed up. That’s 4,000 hours spent with 551 kids at Willow Creek and Eagle Ranch golf courses. That’s a lot of life skills.

Next year Malloy and Milhoan hope to double that.

Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour, has a home in Eagle. In 1997 he contacted former President Bush about helping launch the First Tee program. Bush, along with Barbara Bush, bought into vision of making golf more accessible to kids who didn’t have access, whether the barriers are geographic or socio-economic, Finchem said.

That means convincing golf facilities to give up space and tee times they might be able to sell to paying customers. It’s a small price to pay, Finchem said, and hundreds are willing to do exactly that.

First Tee has 202 chapters around the country playing at 262 courses, including seven in Colorado. Two of those are in Eagle County ” Willow Creek and Eagle Ranch. In the decade the program has been around, 675,000 kids have cycled through. More than 10,000 Colorado kids are expected to be teeing it up by 2010.

“The PGA has an interest because we want the game to look more like America,” said Finchem. “That’s probably a multi-generational exercise, and it’s not an inexpensive exercise. But it won’t be long before we see players from the First Tee program on the PGA tour.”

Maybe it will be Aaron Woodard, who lettered four years at a Denver high school and earned a college scholarship to play at Kansas State. He’s a product of the First Tee program and has nothing but praise for it.

“It’s not only golf, but First Tee teaches life skills,” said Woodard, 18, who’s now an instructor with Denver’s First Tee program.

Steve Czarnicki handles the USGA Foundation and likes what said he sees in Eagle County’s First Tee chapter.

“I’ve never seen a chapter get so big so fast,” Czarnicki said. “It’s an incredible start and I’m looking forward to watching it grow.”

In the last eight years, more than $450 million has been raised to help fund the program nationwide. Czarnicki said the USGA has also made a 10-year, $50 million commitment to make golf accessible to people with disabilities.

“This program has the ability to change kids’ lives,” Finchem said, putting his m

oney where his mouth is as he wrote his own check for $5,000 to the Eagle County program.

But it’s more than money and putting golf clubs in kids’ hands, said Greg Vickers, director of the International PGA tour stop in Castle Rock.

“The thing that’s great about Vail is that it’s a hands-on group,” Vickers said. “People here want to be part of the action.”

Vail, Colorado

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