You could see it in their eyes, wide in awe and wonder. The kids at The First Tee of Lakeland, a facility you can’t believe is there when you drive by it, did not know a single one of the four Epson Tour players who traveled 50 minutes from the Country Club of Winter Haven to give an hour-long clinic as part of the Florida’s Natural Charity Classic. Still, the youngsters paid rapt attention – upwards of 20 boys and girls, ages eight to 14, clustered at the range and nine-hole par-3 course wedged in a 50-yard-wide sliver of land between a busy highway and a commercial warehouse.
They marched out to the mats on a range surrounded by netting and kept alive with little more than love and elbow grease. Binny Lee, a 23-year-old from Frisco, Texas, introduced herself and immediately helped a young boy who showed up holding the club crosshanded. Ohio native Jessica Porvasnik changed a 14-year-old girl’s putting stroke with one simple drill. And Haley Moore wowed them all with a tee shot that hadn’t reached its apex when it cleared the back fence.
“I think it’s super important to come out into the community and do things like this,” Kate Smith, a 22-year-old Epson Tour rookie out of the University of Nebraska, said as the clinic wound down. “Definitely having female role models is important for the girls as well as the boys. And it’s important for us as a reminder that there are more important things than the numbers on the scoreboard at the end of the week. This is how we impact the people around us and the communities that host us each week.”
The facility is accustomed to hosting celebrities. For years, former PGA Tour player Andy Bean, who grew up in Lakeland, hosted an event with Charles Barkley to raise money for The First Tee. Jack Nicklaus stopped by once. Brad Bryant became a regular. Other than Barkley, who they knew from his commentary and commercials and not his NBA playing career, most of the kids didn’t recognize any of the folks there to help them. But it didn’t matter. As Smith said, “Anybody that is an athlete is a pretty cool person in a kid’s eyes. So, to have these kids listen to me is also pretty cool.”
Smith is used to this sort of thing. She helped her parents teach junior golf at a driving range and par-3 course for years. The Smiths now host clinics at Lakeview Golf Course, a public facility in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota.
“They have clinics five days a week and we have about 200 kids a summer,” Smith said. “They have between 50 and 60 kids a day in their clinics.”
Her expertise in making kids better was less important this week than the fact that she and the other Epson Tour players showed up and cared.
“The biggest thing for me growing up was seeing your role models in front of you,” said T.J. Wright, who started in The First Tee of Lakeland as a nine-year-old boy and is now the executive director of the program.
“Over the years, we’ve run thousands of kids through The First Tee of Lakeland,” Wright said. “We service several hundred, up to a thousand young people every year through summer camps and we have an off-site location at a local middle school for underserved communities that we run on Tuesday mornings.”
When asked about the success stories, Wright didn’t mention a single number on a scoreboard. Instead, he said, “The kids we have come out of this program who go to college and then, as adults, come back and volunteer to work here is our biggest success, at least the ones I’m most proud of. They are now stewards of their communities.
“We’ve also sent seven kids to Pebble Beach (for the PGA Tour Champions event) over the years. So, for our population size, that’s incredible.”