Program teaches youth how to succeed on and off links

June 26, 2010 

Though the Wilson brothers just started playing golf a week ago, their swings look fundamentally sound. They know the proper grip and stance. Their ability to swing the club and make solid contact with the ball is lacking, as one might expect from beginners, but on this final day of lessons at the Russian Jack Springs Golf Course, making good contact might be the last priority.

Chandlar Wilson, 10, and Connor Wilson, 13, are playing in a scramble where the foursome of youngsters gets to select the best shot of the group and hit the next shot from there, so a poor shot is not the end of the world. More important are the nine core values that the First Tee of Alaska youth golf program strives to teach: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.

Whether it's strong values or strong golf skills, the sessions are making an impact on the kids.

"Be respectful and when people are talking, tell them to shush," said Matthew Ward, a sixth grader at Clark Middle School.

"Just relax your hands, turn your shoulders and don't hit it really hard," said Bernard Mullen, a fifth-grader at Ptarmigan Elementary.

First Tee of Alaska, a non-profit organization designed to teach kids ages 7 to 18 golf and life skills, is experiencing a resurgence under the guidance of local golf professional, Billy Bomar.

When Bomar took over as executive director in January 2009, 56 kids were in the program, down from about 400 in 2007, before controversy erupted over plans to bulldoze acres of trees to make room for First Tee facilities at Russian Jack Springs Park. Bomar estimates 300 kids will participate this summer.

The increase in participation is a result of adding the Anchorage Golf Course as a First Tee facility this year, creating a partnership with Brotherhood Inc.-- a non-profit organization aiding youth development in Anchorage -- and making winter visits to schools to introduce golf to students.

Bomar, 47, is the director of instruction at AGC and worked at the course off and on since 1990, a connection that he said made it easy to bring the First Tee to AGC.

First Tee of Alaska began in 2006 with intentions of using Russian Jack as the primary facility, but the program suffered a major setback in 2008 when city plans to build a new driving range and upgrade the greens and tee boxes on the nine-hole course met opposition from the community when it was discovered the improvements required 23 acres of trees to be cleared. People took action, fighting for the trees to stay and the course to remain as it was.

Russian Jack is still in use as a First Tee facility, but the course holds only one advantage over AGC -- it is empty most of the time, so the kids can play practice rounds. AGC has a driving range and real practice greens, but almost no course time for kids, because the course is so busy.

Bomar said kids who join the First Tee program are welcome to join at either facility. AGC has already hosted four and has eight remaining and Russian Jack has hosted one and has two remaining. Each session attracts about 20 kids.

Scholarships are available for those unable to afford the fees. In 2009 approximately 25 scholarships were awarded, Bomar said, and he estimates the number will be about the same this year. He said nobody has ever been turned away from the program for inability to pay. To earn a scholarship to the First Tee, interested kids are asked to write a brief letter on why they would like to join.

Chandlar and Connor Wilson are both scholarship members. They are home-schooled and heard of the First Tee through a family friend.

"You meet a lot of new friends," said Chandlar.

"It's a great environment," said Connor. "The coaches are nice and kids are nice."

Their mother, Barbara Wilson, said the boys come home from golf lessons and teach their dad how to play. Now, the whole family is starting to get interested and excited about a sport they can play together.

"My 10-year-old is finally better than my 13-year old at something," she said. "It's really boosted his confidence."

The Wilson brothers went through a session at Russian Jack, a facility Bomar says has potential but needs upgrades to provide an adequate golfing experience.

"We could do 100 kids a day out here," he said.

With only one hole of more than 300 yards, the 1,934-yard course is the perfect length for kids to learn the game. But the turf-covered, concrete-like greens make it impossible to teach pitching, chipping or any shot that requires the ball to stop. The tee boxes are aged, rubber mats full of gaping holes, and the kids have to pound tees in to the mats, using a golf ball like a hammer.

In effort to raise money and awareness, First Tee teamed with Brotherhood Inc, to hold a two-day tournament open to adults earlier this month. Russian Jack hosted the first day, and Bomar was glad the adults got a chance to see Russian Jack's shortcomings.

Bomar said city officials told him money is earmarked for improvements to Russian Jack, but specifics as to what is planned for renovations are not known. There was also a $50,000 state grant awarded to the First Tee this year, but decisions haven't been made on where that money will be spent, he said.

In the meantime, kids will continue learning golf and life lessons, in some cases pondering the possibility -- or the impossibility -- of a round full of aces.

"It'd be pretty hard to score an 18 on all the holes," said Chase James, an 8th grader at Hanshew Middle School.


Find Jeremy Peters online at adn.com/contact/jpeters or call 257-4335.

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