Giving golf a wider appeal

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Fairway Hills Golf Course in Columbia is poised to become the Maryland centerpiece for an innovative, national instructional program that aims to teach golf to children 8 to 18 who lack financial or other access to courses.

By the end of the year, backers plan to have a new addition to the clubhouse at the Columbia Association-owned course as a base for the instruction. Also, they expect to have raised $200,000 in privately generated money - including heavy subsidies from the golf industry - to help underwrite the effort.

The program - to be called First Tee of Howard County - would be the first Maryland link in a national attempt to increase participation by young and minority group players.

While the extraordinary recent success of Tiger Woods has sparked interest in the game among young people and minority group members, National Golf Foundation research has shown that mostly older and more affluent Americans are playing.

Nearly 28 percent of the nation's population are members of racial minorities, but only 6 percent of golfers are minorities.

To encourage more diversity on the nation's golf courses, the major American golf organizations launched the First Tee effort. The Howard program would join more than 70 First Tee programs operating elsewhere.

"It's a win-win-win situation for the kids, for Fairway Hills and CA," said Robert D. Bellamy, operations director for the Columbia Association's Sport and Fitness Division and a Howard County First Tee board member. "The kids will fill out some excess capacity for us, and we'll get some spinoffs, too," he said, noting the possibility of paid rounds by parents and sales of equipment, clothing and food.

In exchange for the 1,000-square foot clubhouse addition for a classroom, lockers and an office, Bellamy said, Fairway Hills will be able to use the space when First Tee is not in session.

Youngsters are expected to pay $10 to participate in each of several skill levels in the program. They would get free transportation to Fairway Hills and other county courses, eight lessons per level, classroom work, greens fees, clubs to borrow, balls and a mentoring arrangement. Free rounds would be awarded for each skill level completed. And for those who qualify, scholarships would be available.

Fliers seeking applicants are circulating in Howard County schools.

Some equipment is expected to be provided by manufacturers and other supplies will be offered to Fairway Hills at discounted prices, Bellamy said.

First Tee enrollees are expected to be allowed to play at times at all other county courses, public and private, said Howard County Councilman C. Vernon Gray, who co-chairs the local group with lawyer Richard B. Talkin, has been trying for a local chapter since 1997.

"Fairway Hills cannot support alone all the rounds," said Gray, an east Columbia Democrat who got involved early with First Tee through the National Association of Counties, of which he is a director and former president.

Arrangements to use Fairway Hills and other courses have developed over the last "seven or eight months," he said, calling the Columbia course ideal because its location near U.S. 29 and Route 108 is central.

Any youngster, even those eligible to play Fairway Hills through memberships in the private Columbia Association, can sign up for First Tee, Gray said. In keeping with First Tee's national objectives, the program's focus will be on minority, disadvantaged children, he said.

Plans are for First Tee to have its clubhouse addition by the fall. Construction money is to come from an expected $100,000 World Golf Foundation grant, Gray said.

He said local organizers "are on the verge of signing a contract" with the national First Tee group, which has its headquarters in St. Augustine, Fla., and that the grant would be issued shortly afterward.

Kelly A. Martin, national First Tee's managing director of facility development, said she expected the contract to be completed "within the next 30 days."

In addition, local businesses and others will be solicited for contributions and sponsorships, the goal being another $100,000 in operating money. Gray said about $10,000 has been committed.

The local chapter will have a full-time administrator and clerical help, to be paid initially out of the foundation grant, although the Columbia Association will provide early administrative support, Gray said.

Classes are expected to focus on golf rules and skills, sportsmanship, ethics, and broader life skills such as goal-setting, anger management and meeting strangers - all elements of the First Tee program nationally, said Joan Lovelace, Fairways Hills' head professional.

She has devised a curriculum that ranges from playing lessons to written tests for the players, the first of whom are expected to start after school closes next month.

It's important to get young people involved in golf, Lovelace said, because they can learn much about other people and themselves. She learned the game as a girl.

In 1998, Gray and other local backers hoped to generate support for First Tee through the PGA Senior Tour's event at Hobbit's Glen Golf Course in Columbia. A year later, the Rouse Co. was reported willing to donate acreage near Interstate 95 in the Guilford area for a new youth course, but Gray said that for legal and other reasons, that plan collapsed.

He said attempts to locate other county sites for a new, nine-hole youth course - something being done on donated land at many other First Tee facilities nationally - proved futile in Howard County because of land costs and inaccessible locations.

First Tee proposals in Prince George's County and Baltimore have not met with success, Gray said.

The mid-1990s Golf Foundation research that first sparked the First Tee effort showed that while 14 percent of the nation's population was 12-to-17 years old, less than 3 percent of those children had tried golf. It also showed that the vast majority of new golfers, averaging 32 years old when they first played, came from households with $50,000-plus in annual income.

Those statistics led to the 1997 establishment of the First Tee program and the attendant World Golf Foundation with money from the U.S. Golf Association, the Professional Golfers' Association, and the Ladies Professional Golfers Association - the wealthiest, most influential organizations in U.S. golf - and the Augusta (Ga.) National Golf Club.

All major international golf associations now have interest in the foundation, according to the First Tee's Web site.

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