Getting the “drive” out of kids at Walnut Lane Golf Course

Golf metaphors come naturally to Dave Smith, who directs the First Tee of Philadelphia program at the Walnut Lane Golf Course in Roxborough.

He says First Tee, which teaches life skills to youth groups through golf, exists to “get the drive out of kids and the desire to improve.”

As he looks over donated equipment in the air conditioned clubhouse awaiting the students and coaches from the Police Athletic League, he explains how the instructors help kids apply lessons learned on the golf course to home, school, and/or work.

“We call it seamless delivery,” explains Smith, a pro PGA golfer who studied Professional Golf Management at Methodist University in North Carolina.

The program is taught around the world, and is now in its third year here in Roxborough where Walnut Lane’s three instructors have touched the lives of 600 kids from all over northern Philadelphia.

Summer camp tees off in July

This year’s first four-day summer camp at Walnut Lane starts on July 5 and runs from 9 a.m. to noon each day. Students pay $95 per session. 

The curriculum is handed down from the professional athletes, teachers and psychologists at headquarters, but as local teacher Rebecca Caimano explains, “We all put our own twist on the way we teach.”

One favorite is “golf baseball” which is similar to baseball but played with a tennis ball and without a pitcher.

The classes are all taught based on the group’s nine Core Values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment.

Respect, which Coach Officer Ernie Rehr says is the most important value, splits into three categories.

“First one is respect for yourself, respect for others, and for your surroundings,” he said.

Students show respect to the golf course, for instance, by wearing appropriate clothes and replacing divots.

“When you live with those three levels of respect, you gain respect,” said Smith.

Reaching a “personal par”

Later, after the kids have finished playing, the group meets back in the clubhouse where they discuss how to apply those lessons to real life.

Smith often asks the class “Say in front of your house you saw someone drop trash, how would that affect you? I ask why and they’re like ‘well that’s not respectful.'”

Smith says golf, unlike other sports, is a “lifelong sport,” and adds that all sports have practical real-world lessons.

Students are encouraged to set their own “goal ladder” and be their own competition. First Tee calls this the “personal par.”

Not just a rich man’s sport 

Smith hopes to bring 1,000 kids to First Tee by next year, and says the biggest challenge is getting the word out.

Golf, despite what many think, is not just a rich man’s sport. A year of lessons with First Tee costs just $75, and scholarships are available if needed. Smith says this means that there is “no reason not to have everybody here” and he is always looking for opportunities to recruit new players.

As he awaits the crew from the Police Athletic League, his employee, Kyle Robinson, comes into his office to tell him that some kids are on the course throwing water balloons at golfers.

He laughs and before sending Robinson after the kids, jokes that if he catches any of them, to give them a First Tee application. “That’s a life lesson,” he chuckles.

First Tee also leads classes for blind golfers. One of his students, Patrick Malloy, now interns at Walnut Lane and has translated the First Tee curriculum into Braille.

“Never a bad day on the golf course”

Out on the course, Caimano is working with Josh Warner, 12, and Brandon Marcus, 14. Brandon impatiently waits for his shot, saying that his “least favorite part of the game is stopping.”

But coach Ernie Rehr keeps his team positive. “I always tell them there’s never a bad day on the golf course,” he says.

Josh, who is from Olney, says that his long-term goal in life is to play golf.

His trainer, Caimano reminds him that to reach his long-term goal he has to set “reachable goals, steps like a ladder.”

She asks him about his academic goals. He replies confidently that if he keeps playing golf, the lessons he learns here will get him through school.

To register for the First Tee of Philadelphia program at Walnut Lane Golf Course, contact PGA Program Director David Zimmaro at 215-508-4135 or dzimmaro@walnutlanegolf.com.

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