- The Washington Times - Monday, August 8, 2011

The average weekend hacker sees golf as a cruel temptress. He is lured to the first tee by the promise of natural beauty and friendly camaraderie, only to sulk off the 18th green feeling embittered and inadequate. Golfers everywhere wonder why they keep dropping large sums of money for weekly lessons in self-torture that do more to promote anxiety than relaxation.

Bill West is not your average weekend hacker. With two daughters on golf scholarships at Hampton University, West views the sport as a life-changing game that can save you heaps of money just as it can strengthen your character. Thanks to a budding youth-development initiative in Mitchellville, Md., West can afford to send his kids to college and, along the way, share in the love for the game that continues to enrich his family’s lives.

That initiative is called The First Tee of Prince George’s County, a program formed in 2001 that aims to give young people of all backgrounds a chance to play a game that might otherwise remain inaccessible to them. Based at Enterprise Golf Course, the program is one of 750 locations that make up The First Tee, an international organization composed of more than 4.7 million participants.

This particular branch, however, is not quite like all the others. With an affordable program and a driven group of leaders, The First Tee of Prince George’s County is expanding nearly as rapidly as its reputation. That reputation is bolstered by the continued success of students such as West’s daughters, Nicole and Dionne, part of a growing list of college scholarship golfers that came from the local program. With six such golfers emerging from the program since 2007 and likely several more on the horizon, many are beginning to look upon the program as the example for other First Tee organizations to follow.

Still, program coordinator Ed Artis insists that The First Tee is about more than golf.

“Some parents come and they want their kid to be the next professional golfer,” Artis said. “We say, ‘Well, hold up.’ While we’re looking to get good at golf, the first thing really is youth development, teaching life skills through golf.”

Indeed, The First Tee teaches children more than the fundamentals of the golf swing. By rewarding kids for fixing their ball marks on the green or facing the consequences of a bad drive, instructors hope to instill core values like integrity and honesty that can be carried into every aspect of life.

The prospect of providing their children with positive influences outside the classroom is a crucial draw for parents, who must make sacrifices in order for the program to survive.

“Golf courses aren’t like your grocery store around the corner,” Artis said. “You’ve got to get them to the golf course. Who’s going to do that? The parents. So without the parental involvement, kids don’t really get to do golf. The parents are a key ingredient. And if a parent plays, that makes it even more special.”

Perhaps more than anything, parents are attracted to the program’s cost-effectiveness. Artis, who runs the program alongside two other paid staffers and 12 volunteers, charges $85 to kids between ages 7 and 18 for a full season, which runs from March through September. The season is divided into three sections, and the kids can attend as many of them as they wish for the same price. Each additional child costs $60, an appealing deal for larger families. To top it off, participants have free access to the driving range and golf course.

“Without this program, kids couldn’t afford to play golf,” West said. “There’s no way I could get a club membership, no way I could get instruction, get access to a course and hit golf balls without this program.”

All the practice that comes with the program is paying off for the kids, some of whom have been playing in big tournaments this summer. Artis‘ 16-year-old son Ryan, the No. 1 golfer for Riverdale Baptist School, placed first in his flight with a pair of 74s this past weekend in Ohio at a Toledo Minority Golf Association tournament that had a field of 29 high school and college golfers. Four of the top six finishers hailed from Artis‘ program, including second-place finisher John Hulede, who captured the Prince Georges’ County Melwood Open High School Championship this past May.

Artis hopes to continue to promote those kind of results through a new initiative this summer that has his kids participating in a metro tour featuring 10 tournament stops, about one per week. He also plans to form a First Tee alumni chapter in the near future so that former students can stay connected and continue to give back to the program that has given them so much.

In the meantime, though, Artis and the rest of the parents can continue to enjoy not only watching their kids, but competing against them. West, a pretty good player in his own right, relishes opportunities to go head-to-head with Nicole, even if it means he usually loses.

“Being a playing parent, when she comes into town from Hampton, it’s on,” West said. “It’s something you can be involved with your kids all your life.”