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Sarasota Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 3 years ago

The First Tee Sarasota/Manatee and the Greater Sarasota Junior Golf Association join forces

The merger gives young local golfers more options
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Editor

Youth golf just got even better around here.

The Greater Sarasota Junior Golf Association (GSJGA) is merging with The First Tee of Sarasota/Manatee to create an organization perfect for junior golfers of any age.

What this tangibly means is an 18-hole winter tournament series for boys and girls. Age groups include 12 and under, 13-15 and 16-18. Events will include one Feb. 10 at Palm Aire Country Club (registration ends Feb. 7); March 16 at Venice’s Jacaranda West Country Club; April 7 at Heritage Harbour Golf and Country Club and a May tournament at Lakewood National Golf Club. Entry is $50 a player.

There will be more tournaments to come. The merger gives kids who graduate from The First Tee’s own programs a natural place to take their game.

Benjamin hits balls during The First Tee's Birdie class at Rosedale Golf and Country Club.

The First Tee itself was founded in 1997, and per its website, is an “international youth development organization introducing the game of golf and its inherent values to kids and teens.” The organization focuses on not just golf, but teaching kids its nine core values: Honesty, Integrity, Sportsmanship, Respect, Confidence, Responsibility, Perseverance, Courtesy and Judgment."

It also teaches nine “healthy habits,” like learning to play sports safely and learning to use your mind for self-improvement. Classes run in nine-week sessions, and kids move up levels as they progress, from "Little Linksters" (4-6 year-olds) to "Eagles" (minimum age 13). When area kids are done with all the sessions, they can smoothly transition into playing GSJGA tournaments.

Its Sarasota/Manatee First Tee chapter was opened in 2001. It has been popular in Sarasota, where its office is stationed, but executive director Lexi McKenney said she is not satisfied, wanting to expand, both in terms of offerings like the GSJGA and with more coaches. Currently, participants get high-quality instruction from Dave Wall, who has coached with The First Tee for 13 years, and McKenney’s daughter, Katie McKenney, who went through the program herself.

But the chapter is also committed to quality over quantity, putting it in a tough position when looking to expand. It takes three years of learning to become a First Tee coach, McKenney said, something on which the chapter is unwilling to budge.

There are people in place to help the chapter, which is relatively small, McKenney said, flourish. Supporters Bryan Veith and Jon Whittemore played golf together at Riverview High, where they won the state title in 1986 and 1988. Veith and Whittemore said they wished The First Tee had existed when they were younger, so they could have learned life skills instead of just playing tournaments — though those were fun as well, and they are excited about the memories kids will now make playing in GSJGA/First Tee events. They know what young golfers like, and can push to make the organization’s offerings as attractive as possible

Phoenix Scanlan said she loves The First Tee for its mix of fun and serious learning about golf.

Kids love the programs, too.

Phoenix Scanlan, a 10-year-old in the organization’s “Birdie” level classes, said she loves the game, and going to The First Tee allows her to hang with her friends. Scanlan, who wears a bright orange hat like her favorite golfer, Rickie Fowler, said the classes offer a nice mix of serious learning and goofing around.

“I want to keep golfing as long as I can,” Scanlan said.

With the combination of The First Tee and the GJGA, Scanlan will be able to do just that.

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I’m the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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