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First Tee Program Opens New Horizons for Game

By John M. Ross,
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. (Katherine Dyson/WorldGolf.com)

Golf has been rapidly expanding its position on the American sports scene over the past two years, and there are signs that it is going to get even better. Based on end-of-year ratings and polls from a variety of credible sources, the following dazzling numbers have emerged:* Since 1999, its TV ratings have increased by 5.9 percent, the only one of the major sports to show a plus. Big league baseball was down more than 22 percent.

• Attendance at tour events has soared to 10 million-plus a year, more than double since 1985.

• Golf TV viewing is now second only to NFL football in percentage of households reached - 21 to 15 percent.

• The number of golfers in the U.S. has grown 9 percent in the last five years; the rounds played, 21 percent.

Analysts attribute much of this to the phenomenal impact of Tiger Woods over the last few years. And this is solidly supported by an ESPN Sports survey that shows that the non-white pro golf fans now account for 23 percent of the total group. That has doubled since 1995.

But none of this has had any effect on the spirited effort of The First Tee program to attract more young people to the unique values of the game. Aimed initially at kids who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity to sample golf because of their economic background, the program has already surpassed its first-year goals and is now reaching even higher. TFT had planned to have 100 facilities in place in 2000, with accommodations for 20,000 youngsters. But that mark was passed and there were 134 facilities at the start of the new year in 38 states, Canada and Puerto Rico.

The prime mover of The First Tee operation is Joe Louis Barrow, Jr., and if you think that name rings a bell, you're right. He is the son of the boxing great, Joe Louis, who held the heavyweight title for 12 years (1937-49) and was one of America's most beloved sports heroes. And based on his performance thus far, Barrow has some of his father's attractive traits like determination and getting the job done properly. His father got things done quickly; not very many lasted more than a few rounds with the Brown Bomber.

Barrow is executive director of The First Tee, and a senior officer of the World Golf Federation, which oversees the operation. In the beginning, the aim was to whet the kids' interest in the game by providing limited space facilities like driving nets, practice putting greens and three- to five-hole layouts. The response has been so enthusiastic that Barrow knows these youngsters will be hankering to get out on 18-hole courses any minute now.

To achieve this quickly and inexpensively, Barrow and his associates are working on a plan to structure affiliate relationships with existing clubs and courses. Listening to him lay out the plan, you just know he's going to get it done.

Barrow quickly and pointedly stresses that this isn't just a sports program for young people, another game to boost the rather limited list of activities that form a dull routine for many. A golf program makes better citizens, provides a great opportunity to stress life skills. All this spins out of learning the rules of golf course etiquette and an understanding of the game's stress on sportsmanship, honesty and self-discipline.

The First Tee program is gaining huge support from virtually every sector of the game and the golf industry and it should. Jack Nicklaus and Julie Inkster are heading up a $50 million funding program over the next five years, and some of the game's well-heeled associations have pledged solid support.

Barrow hopes to have 150 facilities in place by the end of 2001, enough to serve 30,000 youngsters. By 2005, there will be 250 layouts for 500,000 kids, and this will climb to 650 programs and 5 million young players in 2020. The numbers seemed much too ambitious when I first heard them. But after digesting Barrow's enthusiastic spiel, I think he just might do it.

Jack Nicklaus has never been known for his quick wit or memorable one-liners, but he rang the bell at a charity pro-am when Tiger Woods showed off his new blonde hairdo. Startled (like everyone else was), the Golden Bear looked at Tiger and quipped:

"Isn't it enough that you're trying to break my records? Do you want to look like me, too?"

Tiger shaved his head a few days later after explaining that it was all a lark, undertaken during his vacation in the Bahamas.

Winning the World Golf Match Play Championship put $1 million in Steve Stricker's pocket, but it didn't do very much for his world ranking. The win moved him up to No. 47 from No. 90!

Incidentally, the TV ratings for this highly touted Match Play showdown were a disaster. With most of the big names skipping the event, Nielsen charted a 73 percent drop from the previous year. The tape-delayed telecast and heavy competition from NFL football also contributed to the debacle.

Ken Venturi has been tapped to receive the Ouimet Award for his contributions to the game, and the timing couldn't be better. Venturi, who is winding down after 32 years as the CBS golf analyst, has long been one of golf's favorite people. And it all started when Kenny staggered home in the blistering heat at Washington's Congressional Club to win the 1964 U.S. Open.

Also receiving a Ouimet Award will be Eddie Lowery. He was one of Venturi's earliest sponsors, but is best remembered as that little caddie carrying the bag for Francis Ouimet, when the latter won the 1913 U.S. Open at Brookline. The picture is in all the golf anthologies, and he was only 10 years old at the time.

Of course, that was a red-letter day in golf history when Ouimet, only 20 himself and also a product of the Brookline caddie pen, upset Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, the British Titans.

It was called "the shots heard 'round the world," and it triggered a golf boom in the U.S. Lowery went on to become a wealthy California car dealer and a long-time golf patron.

(c) Copyright John M. Ross

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