Teaching Golf – And Life Lessons – In Oakland

The First Tee program thrives, thanks to fundraisers like one held recently at Sequoyah C.C.

By Ken Klavon, USGA
March 30, 2011

 Tony Pleasantbey, 8, fell in love with the game after getting hooked on the Golf Channel when he was younger. (Jed Jacobsohn/USGA) 

Oakland, Calif. – Todd Daniel stands on the Sequoyah Country Club range, arms akimbo, breaking rank to provide hands-on instruction to sisters Alana and Jasmine Setiyadi, who are making their first appearance in The First Tee of Oakland program.

In his second year as life skills instructor for The First Tee chapter, Daniel stands behind Alana, reaches around her waist and guides her body through a fluid swing. Then he takes a page from a Tony Robbins self-help book and voices positive thoughts. More encouragement comes before Alana tees up her next ball. Daniel steps back to see if his instruction has made any difference.  

It does.

“Uh oh,” said Daniel. “Are we getting to fairways with these swings? Keep an eye down there, on the ball, as if there’s a jewel underneath. You have to hit the ball and see what’s underneath that ball or it all goes away.”

 

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After both girls execute solid shots on their third attempts, smiles light their faces. Daniel high-fives both of them. Welcome to The First Tee of Oakland program: smiles aplenty and an underlying mission to teach more than just golf.

 

About a dozen kids congregated after school on this overcast day to partake in the golf seminar. They’re being taught nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment. The program, with its goal to positively impact the lives of young people in the Oakland metropolitan area by educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through golf, is really just in its infancy, having become an official chapter on Dec. 18, 2008.  

East Bay residents between the ages of 7 and 17 are eligible to join the program. According to The First Tee of Oakland Executive Director April Kenyon, there is a $40 application/registration fee and the cost is $110 for the eight-week session. Equipment and supplies are provided for free. No one is turned away. Classes meet five times weekly, Monday through Thursday after school and on Saturday mornings. During the summer eight-week sessions, classes meet once a week at various times.

The First Tee of Oakland targeted six Oakland Unified schools to provide participants for the program. They were selected because more than 75 percent of their student populations qualified for free or reduced lunches under the National School Lunch Act.

“The majority of kids are under-served and at-risk,” said Kenyon. “Some of them run the risk of not finishing high school. … I hope this opens the doors to other courses in Oakland.”

On March 14, Kenyon’s day started in the early morning at the Sequoyah pro shop. It was the fourth consecutive Monday she was on-site, manning a table containing information about The First Tee. She was here to thank golfers for supporting The First Tee program through their green fees and to raise additional money via raffles for free golf at nearby courses.

For the first time in nearly a century, Sequoyah (established in 1913) had opened its doors to public golfers on four consecutive Mondays in February and March. Golfers paid a $75 green fee, and $20 of it went to The First Tee of Oakland. If any club members played, Sequoyah donated the entire fee. Through the first three Mondays, Kenyon estimated that nearly $1,000 had been donated.

To ease the workload on the pro shop staff, Sequoyah partnered with the website GolfNow.com to post available tee times and reservations. The cause wasn’t lost on any of the public golfers who showed up to play.

“I think these private clubs, the ability to get on them, especially to help out the First Tee, is a great idea,” said player Joe Schmidt, 54, of Sunnyvale, Calif.

Added 52-year-old John Cabral: “I like this style of course with its unique design, being one of the older-style courses. It’s why we’re here. I saw something in the San Francisco Chronicle and that’s the main reason why I’m here; I’ll support the First Tee program whenever I can.”

Club General Manager Tom Schunn offered a twofold reason for opening up the tree-lined course that once challenged players such as Jimmy Demaret, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead when it hosted the Oakland Open between 1938 and 1944.

“We’re pleased to do this, to help The First Tee of Oakland,” said Schunn. “We’re all about membership development and retention. The member program is not there like it was with the young generation from years ago.”

Intermittent rain showers doused the course on this day, but that wasn’t enough to keep away many of the 100-plus golfers scheduled to play. The same could be said of the kids, who are polite and enthusiastic. Normally the clinics are held at nearby Lake Chabot Golf Course or Metropolitan Golf Links, but on this day, the program was held at Sequoyah.

Joshua Henry, 10, of Oakland said he started playing golf at 7 because “you can’t sit in the house all day. You learn not to get overheated or mad. That’s my favorite part of the program, because if you don’t get mad and stay peaceful, you can meet new friends.”

Eight-year-old Tony Pleasantbey of Castro Valley, Calif., wore an oversized hat and dressed the part of a golf professional in slacks and golf shirt. Small for his size, Pleasantbey is straight and deceptively long off the tee. He can’t get enough of the game; he got hooked on the Golf Channel and his love for the game soon had him exploring African-American player roots. For a school project, he recently wrote a paper on Charlie Sifford, the first African-American to play on the PGA Tour. His dedication to the sport influenced his father, Nathaniel Pleasantbey, to purchase clubs for himself so he could “be somewhat intelligent about golf with him.”

Then there are sisters Rachel and Ashley Edwards. Courteous and outgoing, Rachel extended her right hand and introduced herself, gushing about the First Tee program. One would never have guessed that the sisters have spent time in at least 10 foster homes. Rachel, 13, was especially excited on this day because she had just gotten accepted at a boarding school in Monterey. Rachel said that there was little doubt that The First Tee’s values have impacted her life.

In the meantime, Ashley, 8, talked about sibling rivalry. Sometimes on the range she will bet Rachel on who can get to the 100- and 150-yard markers first. Ashley giggled and said that Rachel got angry with  her recently when she reached the 150-yard marker first.

 “When I got them out of foster care,” said Natalie Thomas, the girls’ aunt and their legal caretaker, “I was trying to find resources, things they could take part in. I saw a First Tee flier, called and interviewed them. It’s exciting to be on their journey with them.

“What I like about The First Tee is the educational component. It was another learning tool, particularly in helping me raise these girls.”

Kenyon said that participants learn about themselves and others through a range of seamless interactive  activities and experiences that enhance their golf skills as well as their fundamental values.

“It’s not just about winning,” said Shirley Guillot-Williams, whose daughter participates. “The core values they teach are helpful to me. To any single parent, like me, it’s a huge help. They need to hear from somewhere else.”

Daniel made it clear that the core values are emphasized, and golf skills are secondary. He hammers home the concepts of doing the right thing on the course: Do that and suddenly their lives reflect the disciplines of the core values.

“The majority of children we see during the week have never picked up a golf club,” said Daniel. “We still have to present the material as though no one has ever played. We focus on grip, posture and alignment. It’s a paradigm shift for those who teach golf.

 “Sometimes we’re like their surrogate parents and what we instill helps them at home. I’ve always told them that the game of golf resembles the game of life. You learn how to play by the rules. In life, you can’t go to a first job, look at a cash register, see $100 and say the money is yours. Golf at the core teaches you how to make good decisions.”

Kenyon realizes that fund-raising is the toughest challenge in keeping The First Tee program afloat. A goal of raising $13,000 to assist with the $13,000 transportation costs for this spring, was nearly met when the Jerry Rice 127 Foundation donated $10,000.

Besides fund-raising, another challenge for Daniel and Kenyon is getting the kids to come back. The retention rate is under 25 percent. Kenyon said the low number has to do “with our inability to keep the after-school students through the summer session because of no workable transportation system.” Kenyon added, however, that their numbers have grown by 45 percent for 2010 over 2009. 

Sean Cadwallader, 15, and his sister Skyler Cadwallader, 12, are examples of the positive side of the retention rate. They keep coming back. Sean is something of a teacher-student because he’s so advanced as a golfer. Ever since he was 7, his grandmother Maria Cadwallader said, he has wanted to become a professional golfer. He’s so dead set on it that he takes his putter to bed every night.

Near the end of the session, the kids scavenge for all the balls they have hit. They sprint, collecting balls in hands and hats. Their goal is to leave the range the way they found it. Daniel finally bellows for them to get together. Daniel talks about golf while mixing in some of the core value messages. The players listen intently and smile. It’s time to go. Some of the players are exuberant, saying they can’t wait for the next session.

Volunteer instructor Gene Alston, 62, perhaps summed it up best. “[The kids] are very receptive. They’re like sponges.  It’s rewarding to see players grasp new concepts. To see them smile is really rewarding. They take that one shot and they’re hooked.”

Ken Klavon is the USGA’s online editor. E-mail him with comments and questions at kklavon@usga.org. 

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