Respect – fore! – the game

Ella Rodriguez, 8, takes a wack at the ball on the driving range at Gavilan College Golf Course.

Twenty-three 7- and 8-year-olds, most no taller than waist high, all sporting new, bright white hats with the PGA Tour logo etched into the left side, giggled and gallivanted along the greens and golfed a bit, too, at the inaugural First Tee of Silicon Valley spring session held at the perfectly sized nine-hole Gavilan Golf Course nestled in the southwest foothills of Gilroy.

Spearheaded by the yearlong efforts of Don DeLorenzo, the general manager of Gilroy Golf Course and Gavilan Golf Course, and fellow Gilroyan Scot Hathaway, the general manager of Los Lagos Golf Course and Rancho Del Pueblo in San Jose, The First Tee of Silicon Valley officially welcomed Gavilan Golf Course as the newest location last month, joining San Jose’s Rancho Del Pueblo – the chapter’s home base – and Palo Alto Golf Course.

“Gilroy was definitely an area that we have been looking at for a few years now, always knowing that South County would be in the picture,” said executive director of the Silicon Valley chapter, George Maxe. “It’s just a perfect fit. A nine-hole like Gavilan is perfect for youth programming. It’s a classic beginner course.”

The First Tee isn’t just your ordinary youth golf program. Its format emphasizes a students’ life skills development as much as, if not more than, golf skills.

Created as a national program in 1997, The First Tee has 750 locations in the United States, six international sites and serves 4.7 million youth with the mission 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.”

The program is designed around learning “Nine Core Values” – honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment – and applying those characteristics, taught through the sport, to real-life situations.

“Having the next pro golfer come out of this program is possible,” DeLorenzo said. “But that’s not the purpose. We are bringing life skills and golf together.

Sign-ups were opened on Feb. 15 and the class filled quickly – much to the delight of DeLorenzo.

“There is a good mix of boys and girls. It’s probably half and half,” said DeLorenzo, a 1976 Gilroy High graduate, who, in 1985, became the golf pro at Gilroy Golf Course and took over daily operations.

The program features four levels – PLAYer, Par, Birdie and Eagle – each needing roughly two years to complete, Hathaway said. Ideally, students stay involved through high school – as they graduate through the program itself. The still-budding Gilroy Chapter was christened with the group of 7- and 8-year-olds. In the summer a new group will be added and so on. Once fully functional, The First Tee is available for all boys and girls ages 7 through 17.

“This is just a great place for kids to be,” DeLorenzo said. “There is a seamless approach between golf and the curriculum. So that’s what really sets The First Tee apart. We are teaching the young kids how to swing a golf club and these Nine Core Values at the same time.”

The establishment of the program in Gilroy is segmented similarly to how a golfer would navigate a par-4 hole on the course. There was an initial drive, and as Hathaway explained, that dates back to 2005 when he was a key pioneer in laying the groundwork for the Rancho Del Pueblo hub, which hosts upward of 600 kids per year.

“It was our goal in 2005 to get The First Tee up and running,” said Hathaway, who is also on the board of directors of the nonprofit organization. “It took two years to get that started. It has been an unbelievable program. The growth has gotten to the point where we could expand it.”

There was an approach shot – when discussions began between DeLorenzo and Hathaway.

“There were just conversations between Donny and I. He wanted to run something (in Gilroy),” Hathaway recalled. “I told him how successful it has been up in San Jose and how easy it is to run. It’s a totally different way to teach golf. Through those conversations, Donny and George (Maxe) connected and off we run.”

Eventually, after about a year’s worth of organization, the ball found the right line, and nestled into the cup.

“Gavilan is the perfect facility for this. And Donny is the perfect guy to run it,” Hathaway said. “To learn how to play golf is kind of the secondary portion of it. It’s really to create opportunities for kids that they wouldn’t normally get – such as: you could go play Pebble Beach; opportunities to play at CordeValle; there are scholarship opportunities. Once you are in it, it’s a great thing.

“This will grow by leaps and bounds in South County,” Hathaway added.

Growth in the numbers of participants is one aspect. There are lofty aspirations in that regard.

“My goal is to have, within five years, 500 kids in the program,” DeLorenzo said. “We want more representation than just Scot and myself per se. I want to get people involved in golf. I feel that this is such a great program and we are barely scratching the surface. It’s not about how much golf stuff you know, it’s about how much you can relate to the students and pass along those core values.”

Keeping Gavilan Golf Course relevant is another.

“We just want to show the college and everyone else what a necessary asset this is,” DeLorenzo said.

Despite being in the early stages of development, it’s already garnering notice.

“The First Tee is a great organization,” Gavilan President Steve Kinsella said. “Generally speaking, we are very excited about the possibilities. It would be a tremendous link between the young adults and the potential students that we hope to have at the college, as well as reconnecting with the community.”

A future possibility is a course redesign that would benefit the on-course lesson plans as well as regular course patrons that would be funded through grant money provided by the Wadsworth Golf Charities Foundation, which “is dedicated to improving communities through the embodiment of the moral, ethical and cultural codes of the game of golf,” is enticing as well.

“We contacted The First Tee about getting the program here, and all of that just kind of happened,” DeLorenzo said. “That is a bonus, but it’s about getting these kids involved.”

And so it began three weeks ago.

A year’s worth of organization unfolded on the soggy fairway of Hole 1 at Gavilan. It was rainy, windy and cold. But none of that mattered.

“It was fabulous. We had a bunch of troopers out here,” DeLorenzo said. “I was just really excited to finally get (The First Tee) down here.”

And it didn’t take long for the curriculum to kick in.

“Our first core value was respect, and there was a kid running across the green. And I go, ‘perfect teachable moment.’ I told them we have to respect the golf course and respect others around us. So right away we were able to work that in.”

The students were essentially introduced to the golf course – from the tee box, to the fairway to the green and the flagstick. There was even time to learn the proper lean with the putter.

“We did all of our ice-breaker stuff. We broke them into a couple groups, taught them how to hold the club and swing, did a little putting, did a little driving and everybody seemed to have a great time.”

  • Boys and girls from second to 12th grade (ages of 7-17).  Students do not need to have any golf experience or golf equipment. Students need a pair of athletic shoes, a polo shirt and shorts or pants.
  • Classes in the spring, summer and fall over a nine-week period and one-week camps in the summer. Classes are an hour long and meet once per week.
    Cost is $75 for each session.
    The First Tee does not turn away any student because they can not afford the class. Scholarships are available upon request.
    ONLINE: www.firstteesanjose.org. BY PHONE: 408-846-4920

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