More Than Just a Game

First Tee Golf Program instills commitment to character and health habits into youths

There are many great youth programs all working towards a common goal but none quite like The First Tee program. 

The First Tee of the Virginia Peninsula is one of 180 chapter locations in the United States that helps young people gain valuable life skills through the game of golf. The First Tee of the Virginia Peninsula serves local youths ages 5-17 and partners with six program sites including The Hamptons Golf Course, Colonial Heritage Golf Club, Two Rivers Country Club, The Pines Golf Course at Fort Eustis and Newport News Golf Club. The First Tee also offers equipment and training to local physical education teachers and partners with communities to aid disadvantaged youths. Over 11,000 children have been introduced to the program since its start in 2011. 

It’s not all about tee times and birdies, however. The members of the program follow a strict curriculum, which consist of 10-week sessions in each level of the program. Participants must pass each level and become certified before they can move up to the next tier in the program. There are four levels of The First Tee Certification process: PLAYer, Par, Birdie and Eagle. The entrance level for all participants begins with PLAYer, and it introduces participants to playing golf and appreciating the etiquette of the game. 

“The First Tee’s mission is to impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf,” says Brent Schneider, executive director of The First Tee of Richmond and Chesterfield. 

Brent says the program trains all young people to internalize The First Tee’s Core Values and Healthy Habits and apply them in classrooms, in their community and even in their classrooms; “Long-term studies on the program’s impact conclude that the model works.” 

The program educates participants on its Nine Core Values and Nine Healthy Habits. It teaches kids about honesty and integrity and the importance of good sportsmanship. Members learn to respect each other and take responsibility for their actions. The First Tee promotes confidence, perseverance, courtesy and judgment. 

“My personal interaction with participants shows me something is different about these kids,” says Brent. “They are trained to shake my hand, look others in the eye and believe in themselves and their abilities.” 

Lauren Clark, an 11-year-old on the cusp of 12, is one of those kids Brent Schneider is talking about; she has been playing golf since she was 5. 

“As soon as she could walk she was playing in the backyard with plastic clubs,” says Lauren’s mom, Tracey Clark. “It’s hard to think of a time when Lauren wasn’t in the program. We live on the golf course.”

Clark says she and her husband were drawn to The First Tee program because of the leadership and life skills it offered for both of their children. Their son, Ethan, is 8 and also in the program. “We teach both of our kids these skills in our home.”

The program has helped Lauren enhance her love for the game but also teach her about the importance of giving back to her community.

“I had two wonderful role models who took the time to encourage me, and it’s great having the little kids come up to me and ask, ‘Lauren, can you help me with my swing?’” 

Lauren says she does not mind when fellow participants ask her for advice, “It would just be wrong for me to not give back after what others have done for me.” 

Clark says that Lauren has grown in ways that she could not have even imagined, especially in her sportsmanship and integrity, and in 2013, Lauren was selected to compete in the National Drive, Chip & Putt championship.

“To go and see her handle that kind of pressure was pretty amazing,” Clark says, “but when she went to qualify the second year, she didn’t perform the way she wanted to, and she woke up with a bad cold the last day. She knew she wasn’t going to qualify.”

Clark says she worried how Lauren was going to handle the loss, holding back tears when talking about Lauren’s reaction at the end of the competition. 

“I watched a girl stomp off after she performed poorly,” says Clark. Lauren quickly interjects, “She won 3rd place, too.” 

“But Lauren kept a smile on her face, and she gave the winner a handshake.” Clark says, “And when we went to find Lauren at the car I asked if she was upset and she said, ‘Mom, I have to act this way because this is who I represent,’ and she pointed down at her First Tee T-shirt that she was wearing.” 

Lauren says her coach, Paul Sargent, has helped her realize what is important off the golf course. 

“Coach Paul says, ‘No one will remember the score you shoot when you’re out there, but they will remember how you acted’.” 

And it’s not just Lauren who has been affected by the program. Clark says she loves to see the young boys and girls in the program after they finish a round together. 

“The boys take off their hats,” she says, “and some grown men don’t even do that.” 

To promote healthy, active lifestyles for young people, The First Tee, ANNIKA Foundation and Florida Hospital for Children created The First Tee Nine Healthy Habits, which helps grow physical, emotional and social skills, and Lauren and her mother agree that Healthy Habits has been one of their favorite aspects of the program. 

“My coach has really been helping me,” Lauren says, “and I’ve been encouraging my family to be healthier.”

 Clark says Lauren has been making her get more involved in her own healthy habits, and Lauren’s golf swing has dramatically changed because of her focus on health. The First Tee reaches out to public school to get more kids involved and to get them to get out and get active. 

“They want well-balanced, healthy kids.” Clark says. 

Brent Schneider says The First Tee is much more than simply a place to learn the game of golf. The First Tee provides opportunities for young people to experience a positive, safe place surrounded by caring adults. 

“They learn the value of giving back to their community and the meaning of responsibility and respect,” he says. 

Programs like The First Tee do more than just get youths and teens active and involved in their community, it also gives them tools to help them succeed in their future endeavors. 

These young men and women learn that how they act on and off the golf course is far more important than their score on the back nine. 


The First Tee Nine Healthy Habits 



It is important to understand and make healthy choices about when to eat, how much to eat, and the types of food and drinks to provide the body with the most useful energy. 


A variety of energizing play can help the body stay strong, lean and fit, and be fun in the process. Sleep and other forms of “re-charging” allow one to engage in play on a daily basis. 


Physical safety includes playing in a safe environment and by the rules, protecting the body with proper equipment, warm-up and cool-down and wearing sun protection. 



In order to make the most of one’s unique gifts—talents, characteristics and abilities—an individual needs to learn from the past, value the present, create their vision and future to ultimately “leave a footprint.” 


The mind is a powerful tool for health. One’s mind influences his/her emotions and behaviors and can be utilized for self-improvement, building confidence and maintaining perspective. 


When family members participate in activities together—share meals, communicate and establish roles and responsibilities—they are more likely to be successful in achieving their health-related goals.



Maintaining healthy relationships includes surrounding one’s self with friends and supportive people, while effectively handling challenging situations, including bullying and navigating the digital age with social media.


Success in school—learning, building relationships and contributing to the school environment—leads to success in other areas of life. 


Like the health of one’s body, it is important to also explore the health of one’s community and discover how one can give back and care for its environment and safety.


The First Tee Nine Core Values 


Golf is unique from other sports in that players regularly call penalties on themselves and report their own score.


Golf is a game of etiquette and composure. Players are responsible for their actions and personal conduct on the golf course even at times when others may not be looking.


Players must know and abide by the rules of golf and be able to conduct themselves in a kind and respectful manner towards others even in a competitive game.


In golf it is important to show respect for oneself, playing partners, fellow competitors, the golf course, and for the honor and traditions of the game.


Confidence plays a key role in the level of play that one achieves. Players can increase confidence in their abilities by being positive and focusing on something they are doing well regardless of the outcome.


Players are responsible for their actions on the golf course. It is up to them to keep score, repair divots, rake bunkers, repair ball marks on the green and keep up with the pace of play.


To succeed in golf, players must continue through bad breaks and their own mistakes, while learning from past experiences.


A round of golf should begin and end with a handshake between fellow competitors. Players also should be still and quiet while others are preparing and performing a shot.


Using good judgment is very important in golf. It comes into play when deciding on strategy, club selection, when to play safe and when to take a chance, the type of shot players consider executing, as well as making healthy choices on and off the golf course.