SCOTTSDALE – Lights and cameras greeted notable figures such as former Vice President Dan Quayle as they filed onto the red carpet Monday to celebrate First Tee-Phoenix’s 20th anniversary at Ocean 44.
The lineup of celebrities, which included several PGA Tour players and television personalities, didn’t pay $1,500 a plate at the posh Scottsdale restaurant just to sample the steak and lobster.
The focus was raising money for First Tee-Phoenix, the local chapter of the youth development organization that doesn’t just teach golf. Rather, it is dedicated to building character and teaching life skills to the younger generation through golf.
There are 150 chapters spread across the country and First Tee-Phoenix teaches more than 120,000 youth annually across the Valley.
Many of the children impacted by First Tee might not otherwise be exposed to the game.
“The game of golf has to grow, it has to diversify,” said ESPN’s Michael Wilbon. “Otherwise sports die. And it does happen, golf needs to do that, and the First Tee is a primary way to do that.”
Children ranging from age 4 to 18 are eligible to join. As of 2021, the program had impacted more than 2.2 million individuals nationwide.
Caden Clark said joining First Tee was one of the best decisions he ever made. A 17-year-old First Tee-Phoenix member, Clark was one of 80 First Tee members nationwide selected to participate in the 2022 PGA TOUR Champions’ PURE Insurance Championship at Pebble Beach,
The First Tee players were each paired with a PGA TOUR Champions player during the first two days of the 54-hole tournament, with the top 24 continuing on to the final round.
“It’s so interesting to see young people make the same choices that I made to stick around,” Clark said. “I’m 17 now, so I can look back at the kids who are 9 and say, ‘You’re making a good choice by being here.’ And I can be a part of that good choice.”
Being involved with First Tee not only teaches kids the game of golf, but opens up doors of opportunity for them within the sport, whether playing the game or in the business of golf.
On top of golf lessons and an introduction to the sport, First Tee offers youth entrepreneur courses and a Leadership Academy for participants looking to expand their skill set off the course.
“The life lessons that kids learn from the First Tee – not just the decorum on a golf course or how to manage your game, but then the personal skills that you develop – is invaluable for what these kids are going to do when they are beyond the First Tee age range and take the next step,” said George Savaricas, a Golf Channel studio host.
Although First Tee has hundreds of programs nationwide, First Tee-Phoenix utilize two primary programs – the On Course and School and Community programs – to fulfill its mission of “positively impacting the lives or Maricopa County’s youth by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf.”
The On Course program is active at 14 unique golf facilities throughout Maricopa Country that utilizes expert opinion and knowledge of 50-plus staff members and volunteer coaches. The School and Community program focuses on education and teaches golf-related curriculum during in-school physical education periods at 15 different school districts in the greater Phoenix area.
“It’s great to see First Tee has taken on the challenge of creating communities like this throughout the United States,” said PGA Tour Pro James Hahn. “We just need to keep feeding the youth more opportunities.
“I remember when I was 12 years old using golf clubs that didn’t fit me, but with fundraising events like this, we’re able to fit the younger generation with clubs that actually fit them. The better they play, the more interested they are in the game. And I think that’s really important.”
In large part because of First Tee’s work across the country, youth golf participation is the highest it has been since 2006, according to the National Golf Foundation. There has been a net gain of more than a million junior golfers (ages 6-17) from 2019 to 2023, bringing the total of junior golfers participating to 3.4 million – a 36% increase.
“I was fortunate enough to get into golf when I was a junior,” said Quayle, who spent part of his childhood living in Paradise Valley. “I think the younger generation is gravitating towards the sport of golf. I think the First Tee is mainly responsible for a lot of the younger people getting involved in the game of golf.”