Nobody’s born with a love of golf. But there are few young people who wouldn’t welcome the chance to climb aboard a shiny green John Deere tractor. And thanks to John Deere, The First Tee, and the PGA Tour’s TPC network, groups of lucky First Tee participants are getting to spend some time in a Deere mower driver’s seat, talk to course superintendents, learn about turfgrass, see how holes are cut–and much more.
It’s all part of The First Tee’s “Careers on Course” program, which kicked off last year when John Deere became a Trustee-level donor of The First Tee and wanted some of their gift to be used for educational experiences.
Since The First Tee was founded in 1997, it has introduced the game of golf to more than 9 million young people in all 50 states. Its goal is to impact the lives of young people, often underprivileged ones, by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf. The outreach programs of The First Tee programs reach students at school, on golf courses and other facilities where kids gather. Careers on Course is just one of those programs, and by all accounts, it’s a winner.
“A number of ideas were batted around,” explained Joe O’Brien, V.P. for Chapter Education & Opportunities for The First Tee. “The Careers on Course program emerged as one that would provide an enriching experience for high school-level participants. It was designed and developed by the TPC agronomy department, with the goal of introducing young people to all the various careers that are available today in the golf industry. The program is also designed to give these students an appreciation of the complexity of course management, with an emphasis on science, math, the environment, aesthetics and course playability. Following each event, two young people are selected to shadow a superintendent for a full day at a PGA Tour event. What an eye-opener that is.”
“We look at the First Tee as part of our corporate social responsibility but also as part of our brand,” said Denver Caldwell, Manager of Turf/US & Canada for John Deere. “We’ve got a great turf business, but when it comes to our brand and people understanding who John Deere is, the fact that he was a man and that our company exists on the core values that he had is why it makes sense… to align with organizations like the First Tee.”
Last year, Careers on Course events were held in Boston, Atlanta and Chicago. This year, participants from First Tee chapters in the Quad Cities, North Florida and Connecticut are involved.
“We’re trying to give them some insight into what it’s like to be a golf course superintendent,” said Nick Marfise, superintendent at the Dubsdread course at Chicago’s Cog Hill, “…what it takes to maintain the golf course and the property at a high level, let them see the equipment, and get an idea of what it’s like to be working here on a daily basis.”
First Tee participants love playing the game, but as Scott Pavalko, Director of Grounds Operations at Cog Hill noted, “It’s really important for young golfers to learn about course maintenance. Maybe it spawns a career for them, or maybe it’s just a better understanding of the golf course and what we do to maintain it and how they can help maintain the golf course.”
Lucas Andrews, superintendent at the Dye’s Valley Course at TPS Sawgrass, concurs. “A lot of the 26 participants here were golfers whose only exposure to golf courses was from that standpoint, as a player. But at the end of the day, they had a better appreciation for many of the things that go into presenting a golf course every day.” He and the group that met with the participants at Sawgrass this past May started their day at 7:30 and went clear through to 4 pm, with experts from many areas addressing the group. “They really liked learning about the Stimpmeter,” Andrews said. “We demonstrated it on a green then cut that green and showed them the difference. They also got excited when we went inside and Dr. Jason Cruz talked to them about turfgrass biology and morphology. I’d love to see it happen again next year. The kids from The First Tee are so nice–so polite.”
And what did the kids think? Joe Storti, a First Tee of Greater Chicago participant, said that his favorite part “was going on the tractor. Pretty awesome. And I liked learning how hard it is to really run a golf course. It gives me more appreciation for the game now. For Kennedy Perkins, also from Chicago, it was all about the agronomy. “I enjoyed learning about the different kinds of grass and the irrigation,” she said.
Not every kid who participates in a Careers on Course program will end up working in the golf business–just as not every First Tee player will end up playing competitive golf. But it’s a program that kicks open a door, and there’s no telling who will walk through that door and find a career in golf. Plus, there are other benefits.
“The superintendents remark that preparing for this day brings them great pride,” said O’Brien. “They appreciate having an interested audience that is anxious to learn. This program is one that could be a huge benefit to course owners, managers, green committee chairs, and golfers seeking a better understanding of the ecosystem and financial imperatives of a golf course. The First Tee is delighted with the program and the value it brings to teenage participants.”
David DeSmith is a freelance golf writer who lives in New England.