The Kids Think It's About GolfJan 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
During the years when Corning, Inc. sponsored an annual stop on the Ladies’ Professional Golf Association (LPGA) tour, community members realized they were bringing a resource into the community with the potential to make a profound difference to youth. Thus First Tee Corning, part of a national organization, came into existence, as a way to introduce young people to golf—and a whole lot more.
“It teaches children and youth life skills through the game of golf,” says Dawn Marie Castellana, vice president of the governing board of Corning Classic Charities, sponsor of First Tee. “Golf is a lifetime sport, unlike lacrosse and wrestling. You can play golf into your eighties and nineties.”
But First Tee is not simply about interesting the younger generation in an elegant sport.
Program director Jon Wilbur says the program is even more about character education, with “Golf as the vehicle to deliver that to kids.”
He lists the nine core values instilled along with the skill of the putt—“Courtesy, honesty, integrity, perseverance, responsibility, judgement, respect, sportsmanship, and confidence.” Pre-covid, young golfers learned that the art of the handshake requires a firm grip while looking the other person in the eye. They’re still also taught essential life skills like resiliency, goal-setting, and conflict resolution. All these are useful in the game and beyond.
Jon first became involved through his work for a local sign company which provided all the signage for the LPGA tournament. Hired to help set up the golf course, he went on to assist with a golf summer camp for kids.
Golf as a sport has been offered in public schools through B.O.C.E.S. (Boards of Cooperative Educational Services), as part of the physical education programming during the school year. During the summer, golf camps were organized at local golf courses and visiting LPGA professionals put on a kids’ golf clinic during the week they were in Corning for the event.
The LPGA tour no longer brings a tournament to Corning, but First Tee, serving youth in an eight-county area in New York’s Southern Tier and Pennsylvania’s Northern Tier is going strong. Children as young as five begin learning with child-sized equipment and Velcro targets, progressing to adult clubs and real golf balls as they’re able. And although golf equipment and greens fees can seem costly to people at an economic disadvantage, First Tee’s scholarships ensure no child who wants to learn the game experiences an economic barrier to the sport. This opens opportunities to kids who wouldn’t otherwise have them, including meeting a diverse group of kids of similar age they might not otherwise get to know. “We eliminate all the barriers,” Jon says.
Dawn Marie’s daughter Christina, now twenty-five, was a First Tee participant. “I think the program brought to light some soft skills Christina didn’t know she had,” Dawn Marie says now. “Christina says the life skills you learn from First Tee are very important. That’s the basis of how you interact with other people. Some of the other kids had never been taught that.” In fact, at an international First Tee conference, Dawn Marie heard several people comment the biggest thing alums took away from the program was how to present themselves at the meet-and-greet. That handshake—looking the other person in the eye while introducing oneself with the words, “Nice to meet you!”— have helped many along the path to success.
Coach Tom Terwilliger, a retired physical education teacher who continues to work with First Tee, decided soon after he began, at least sixteen summers ago, to incorporate some of First Tee’s principles into his classes. “The first day in gym class every year I’d go over my rules and go over the meet and greet. Of course, today we have them tap their golf clubs together with the head toward the ground. And you can tell if someone’s smiling, despite a mask. We always told them to look the other person in the eye—you can see it in their eyes.”
Tom himself signed his two sons up for First Tee. “My wife said to the boys, ‘You never know what you’re going to do later in life or who you’re going to meet and what kind of networking you’ll want to do.’ You don’t play golf by yourself. You never know when you’ll be in a situation where someone will say, ‘Hey, let’s play golf!’ And you’ll know what to do when you’re there.”
A few years ago, Jon arranged for First Tee to take over the empty Macy’s store in Big Flats. The 20,000-square-foot space was converted to an indoor golf and sports training facility with a lot of community help. Here, students of outdoor sports can practice no matter the weather, and First Tee kids can work with Tom and other coaches to practice their stance, their swing, and other skills. In the winter, First Tee offers sessions after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays as well as Saturdays. Then they’re ready for summer camp at Willow Creek Golf course at Big Flats where, for a few hours each morning, the kids are able to use the driving range, two practice holes, and the putting green. “The golfers there playing are incredibly supportive,” Tom says. “They’ll stand and watch the kids and applaud for them.”
That informal lesson on sportsmanship isn’t lost on the kids—or their coaches. “I fully believe in this program,” Tom says with conviction. “It’s not just about golf, it’s about life!”