The Children’s Course: Where Playing For Free Pays Off Big-Time

Oct. 13, 2009

By Araceli Ortiz

When Austin Landis was 10, his father was in prison and Austin was put in foster care.  He had little direction and was headed for life as a sad statistic. Today, Landis is a kind, respectful, and well-adjusted high-school junior and competitive golfer who wants nothing more than to improve his golf game and help others to do the same. The Children’s Course in Gladstone, Ore., and The First Tee programming at this nine-hole, par-3 facility near Portland, have put him on a positive trajectory and far away from the “at-risk youth” category.

Duncan Campbell, the founder of The Children’s Course, experienced his own adversity while growing up. His dream was to open a golf course where kids could play for free if he were fortunate enough to find the resources. Fortunately for Campbell, and for thousands of low-income and at-risk children in the Greater Portland area, he found the means to open The Children’s Course in 1996 after founding The Campbell Group investment firm. He took over an existing 9-hole par-3 course and re-dedicated it to children.  He, and his wife Cindy, were named the Oregon Golf Association’s Members of the Year in 2007.

The Children's Course in Gladstone, Ore., has helped keep Austin Landis on the right path. (Courtesy USGA Foundation)

Helping provide such opportunities to underserved youth is a core mission of the USGA’s “For the Good of the Game” Grants Initiative, and since 1999, the Association has provided five grants totaling $207,000 to The Children’s Course. The organization has garnered significant community support since that time and has continued to grow and, as a result, serves a greater number of children each year. 

Over the years, The Children’s Course has provided thousands of children the opportunity to have what they otherwise could not afford in the form of a golf course where they are always welcome and have all of the equipment they need.  In 2008, The Children’s Course served 3,500 kids, partnered with nearly 80 other youth and social service organizations, provided more than 3,900 free rounds of golf and gave away more than 500 sets of golf clubs to deserving and needy kids. Among those partners is the Oregon Golf Association.  They partnered with the Woodburn Area Youth Golf Association to become a programming affiliate of The Children’s Course at the OGA Golf Course.

Campbell explained that The Children’s Course offers free golf to all children when they first enroll for golf. After a certain point, children must earn their right to free play by helping with groundskeeping and other golf course maintenance or volunteer work. This, Campbell says, teaches children good values, work ethics and responsibility. 

As Landis put it, “The Children’s Course was always very welcoming. It was a place to get away from the real world.” 

Landis was fortunate to be introduced to The Children’s Course when he was a youngster and took advantage of the opportunities it offered. Today he’s back living with both parents and dreams of becoming a PGA Tour professional. His practical side, however, makes him add that his “realistic goal is to get a golf scholarship for college and become a golf instructor.” 

Landis says that his favorite part of participating in The Children’s Course is the volunteer work with clinics for the visually impaired. It’s his way to give back. “The Children’s Course has helped me since I was a child,” Landis said. “They were always there for me, even before they knew me.” Landis also volunteers for Leisure Hour Junior Golf, another USGA-supported junior golf program in Portland, Ore., that offers programming at The Children’s Course. 

His favorite memory of The Children’s Course is playing in a pro-am with LPGA Tour professionals. It was fun, but what impressed him most was how serious and respectful the players were about the game.  He also fondly remembers a golf marathon fundraiser he participated in during which he played 112 holes in one day.

Last year as a sophomore, Landis led his high school golf team to the 4A State High School Championship, where he individually tied for 12th place out of 91 participants. He has also participated in an invitation-only leadership academy through The First Tee, as well as an invitation-only tryout for the Wal-Mart – The First Tee Open. In addition to his on-course success, Landis has learned the life values attributed to the game.

Cathy Porter, outreach director at The Children’s Course, said, "Austin has had to overcome many challenges in his family life. The First Tee program at The Children's Course has given him a stable environment that has helped him to thrive both on and off the golf course. Since joining our program, his grades have improved markedly and he is competing at a high level in the Oregon Junior Golf tournaments. We are very proud of his accomplishments." 

Providing kids with a safe haven and a place to play golf is having a positive effect on the community.  Parents constantly tell Dennis Shrag, executive director of The First Tee at The Children’s Course, that their kids have better attitudes, are better at prioritizing and take school more seriously after taking part in programming. 

A founding partner of The First Tee, the USGA continues to be the largest financial supporter of the organization. Thus far in 2009, the USGA has distributed $505,000 in grant funding among 37 chapters of The First Tee, bringing total USGA support of the national junior golf organization to more than $25.5 million since its inception in 1997. 

Schrag said, “We are proud and lucky to be able to offer these programs.” As Campbell put it, “The reason we created this course was to give young people like Austin the opportunity to play golf at a course and become not only good golfers, but productive members of our community.” 

Araceli Ortiz is a USGA Fellow based in Colorado Springs, Colo. For more information about the USGA Grants Initiative, click here. For details about The First Tee at The Children’s Course, click here.



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