From the projects to the putting green

Jun 12, 2012

The Visitacion Valley Middle School is located in the southern part of San Francisco – one of the poorest residential areas of the city. It's recess and kids are outside playing the typical sports: football, basketball. But at this school, there's also golf.

Tony Anderson, Visitacion Valley's site director, works with 20 to 30 kids every day at the schools practice range. One is a 13-year-old named Faletui Manu. “Manu is one of our students who's been with us. He's just walked up to practice on his little chip here,” says Anderson, before congratulating Manu on a nice shot.

This is the First Tee Program. Kids from five neighboring schools share the facility at Visitacion Valley Middle School. That’s about 500 kids throughout the year. There is a putting green and a driving range with a net.

Anderson says that kids “learn the basics of golf in terms of how to grip a club, how to have proper posture, how to swing, whether it's a short swing or full swing.” After learning at the school's golf course, First Tee Instructors bring the kids to the Gleneagles Golf Course at nearby McLaren Park. Some of most dedicated ones have a chance to go across town every Saturday to Harding Park, one of the most prestigious public golf courses in America.

Shortly after 7 o'clock on a Saturday morning, coach Jarron Jackson drives a van to pick up kids from their homes in Sunnydale – it's the largest housing project in San Francisco, in one of the city's most violent and poorest neighborhoods. First we stop at Manu's house.

“Manu lives right here,” Jackson points out. “That's his mum. He is my first pick up every day. He's been playing about 5-6 months. He loves the game and he is vastly improving! He's going to be a good player if he keeps it up,” says Jackson.

Manu comes out of his home – a converted apartment building that was once a military barracks from World War II. All of the run down buildings in his neighborhood look the same. We move a couple of blocks down trash-strewn streets to pick up some other kids. One of them is late.

“We've got to figure out where he lives, so we can start knocking on his door, because half the time he is there asleep,” Jackson explains. “I thought his mom is usually at work because she never answers the phone. But then she always sends him out,” Jackson says to other kids in the van.

After several unanswered phone calls, we have to move on. We pick up a kid who's been absent for the last couple of weeks. Jackson reminds him about it: “Young man! How are you feeling? Where have you been, young man? Are you going to quit me? Are you going to quit me?”

“No,” the young golfer replies.

This Saturday Jackson and another First Tee coach pick up more kids than usual – about 18. As we drive around, coach Jackson talks with the kids about golf.

Finally, after an hour-and-a-half, we arrive at Harding Park Golf Course. It's a sunny day and the parking lot is full of expensive cars. Jackson and the kids head for the clubhouse where the First Tee Program has a special classroom. Used golf shirts and caps have been set on the floor in the center of the room. They're donations to the program. Kids are encouraged to choose one or two for themselves.

After a short update, the kids go to the golf course. Some of them practice on their swing, while others are divided into groups of four and take off to play a round. Manu grabs his clubs.  “My parents say they want me to go to a program. I'm the first person in our family to play golf. So, they keep saying, ‘Go, go, go! Get better! One day we'll see you in a PGA tour,’” says Manu.

Manu is playing, today, with 15-yea-old Kevin Kirksey. Kirksey has been playing golf since he was nine and recently participated in his first tournament. “The experience was very nerve wracking because I wasn't used to the tournament environment. I think I've played pretty good for my first tournament. I don't have any regrets,” he says.

Kirksey and Manu hit the ball pretty well, and move crisply down the course. It’s part of the etiquette of golf, which they’re taught in the program. Another 15-year-old on the course, Terek Turner, says the First Tee program develops discipline in all kinds of ways: “They want you to do good. Instead of just coming out here and whacking the club, they want you to be book smart too. It's a good program.”

I ask him about his career aspirations. “Honestly, the sport I really want to play is to be a basketball player. But, I don't know, the chance is really slim. So, I think I'm going to try to go to a good college and see what it takes me from there,” Turner replies. He understands that golf is an expensive game. When he turns 18, greens fees at Harding Park will cost him between $46 and $60. Turner wants to be able to afford it after he ages out of the First Tee program: “Oh, yeah. I'll keep on playing golf. I will die with the club in my hand. I love this game. If anybody will try to take me away from this game, I don't know what I'll do.”

“Once they develop their skills, they are on the golf course, the next thing is how can we make sure that have a very successful life. So that when they chose to continue golf, they have the financial means along with the interest to continue to play golf,” says Jonathan Lee, Program Director for First Tee San Francisco.

According to Lee, San Francisco First Tee works directly with about 1,600 kids every year, but most kids don’t spend that much time with the program. In fact, Lee says, since the program began in 2004, only about 35 kids that he knows of have stuck with it through the age of 18 and gone on to college. That’s not a lot of long-term success stories, but there are some.

Alexandra Wong from St. Ignatius High School won the San Francisco City Championship for golf in March. She’s moving on to play golf at Princeton next year. Her twin sister received a golf scholarship from UC Davis.

For most kids, though, the First Tee is a chance to get outdoors and learn something about a game, and a world, that they once knew nothing about. It’s a start.