On the right course

The First Tee golf program helps build character in children.


Simple introductions and handshakes are the first lessons for young golfers, age 7 and up, who are just starting out. It’s a small act of etiquette, but that’s how golf begins out on the course at the first tee.

Along the way, across 18 holes, golf can be a taskmaster in teaching—and testing—positive traits.

“Character, integrity, all these things are what kids really need to learn, and they need to start at an early age,” says Meredith Yaun, a longtime instructor and former professional golfer.

The values and lessons learned from golf are well-known to Meredith. Now she’s instilling those values in youngsters ages 7-18 through the First Tee, a national educational program delivered both on the golf course and in schools. 

The First Tee is designed to help more kids play golf while also teaching them nine core values and nine healthy habits—a nice round of 18—all of which can be incorporated into everyday life from childhood on into adulthood. 

“I don’t know if kids are being taught these core values at school. You learn them at home. I learned from a young age and now I get to impart this [to children],” says Meredith, who also emphasizes to her fledglings that golf can be a path to higher education through scholarships.

The First Tee is a nonprofit youth sports organization formed in 1997 through a partnership among the U.S. Golf Association, the men’s and women’s professional tours, and other golf entities. The program is taught in all 50 states and served 5 million children at 1,200 golf facilities in 2017, according to its website.

The First Tee of Central Florida, based in Winter Park, covers Lake, Orange, Seminole, and Osceola counties. Since it was founded six years ago, the chapter has shared its youth development programming with more than 90,000 youngsters in 123 elementary schools, 22 after-school programs, and on 10 golf courses throughout the region.

On those courses, the chapter has 500 to 600 participants in the Golf & Life Skills Experience Program. The chapter expanded last year into Lake, bringing that program to Kings Ridge Golf Club and Green Valley Country Club, both in Clermont. 

Alondra Vargas, a 12-year-old from Clermont, joined the program at Kings Ridge in May and almost immediately noticed improvement in striking the ball. She’s been golfing for less than a year, and she found she liked the First Tee’s approach to instruction, where kids learn something different each week.

“I really loved the First Tee, it was so cool, I don’t know why, but it was different. I’m learning a lot,” she says. 

Alondra, who plans to continue participating in golf and the First Tee, agrees that the program teaches more than just the mechanics of the sport.

“You learn to be respectful and you learn behavior on the golf course, because you don’t want to be doing anything wrong. You want to be the best you can be,” she says. “You learn confidence and sportsmanship, and I really like that, too.”

Off the course, the First Tee National School Program brings golf and core values to elementary gym classes as part of the curriculum, and DRIVE is an after-school program designed for children participating in organizations like the Y and the Boys & Girls Clubs. The students use modified equipment that makes it easier to learn the four basic shots of golf.

These outreach programs are not in Lake County schools yet, but the chapter is working to make that happen, Executive Director Tom Lawrence says. They serve as a starting point for potential golfers.

“We hope kids get excited about the game of golf and join the First Tee or another golf program,” he says.

Meredith became the First Tee’s lead instructor at Green Valley in 2017 after meeting with Tom and program director Sherry Dircks.

“They try to find the right people to implement the program, not just anybody. They want to make sure it’s a good fit,” Meredith says.

Meredith, of Lake Minneola, has the credentials. She played for 10 years on the Women’s Professional European Tour in the 1980s and ’90s, and has taught both juniors and adults for more than 20 years for the city of Clermont Parks and Recreation Department.

“I was excited for something new. I believe in the First Tee,” she says.

In the spring, Meredith attended a training seminar in Richmond, Virginia.

“It’s extremely professional how they want you to teach golf in every aspect: physical, mental, social, eating habits,” she says.

The First Tee golf and life skills clinics last eight to 10 weeks. The lessons are learner-centered, she says, and include many games on the practice greens to create a fun atmosphere in which to learn. The kids also get a physical workout with strength and agility exercises before practicing chipping, putting, and the rest of their game.

Each week’s lesson incorporates one of the nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment.

“We start with the core values and ask, how do we apply this to school, to the golf course, and at home, and they’re thinking and answering,” Meredith says.

In addition, children are encouraged to make the right choices through nine healthy habits within three categories: physical—safety, energy, and play; emotional—vision, mind, and family; and social—school, community, and friends.

Players use traditional equipment in the Golf & Life Skills Experience Program and learn the game of golf in a more detailed way than in the school program, Tom says. The program was developed by experts in the field of positive youth development, and the life skills include interpersonal communication, self-management, goal setting, and overcoming challenges.

As the children advance through the program, the lessons are adapted to their ages, Tom says. For example, goal setting comes around age 12 or 13, as children set goals not only for golf but also for healthy lifestyles and future careers. Similarly, self-management skills help the students take what they’ve learned on the golf course, such as overcoming adversity or coping with disappointment, and transferring those lessons to the classroom and their lives, he says.

“Our ultimate hope is that young people will get involved at age 7, 8, 9, or 10, and stay involved through high school as they prepare for their young adult lives,” Tom says.

While players like Alondra are a little young to start thinking about their futures, success stories are emerging from the relatively new Central Florida chapter. Five First Tee participants, including two this year, have graduated high school, and one has received national honors.

Topanga Sena, a graduate of Cypress Creek High School in Orlando, was selected as one of 20 young women from around the country to join the KPMG Future Leaders Program. The program gives top female high school seniors the opportunity to enhance their personal growth through college scholarships, a leadership development retreat at Stanford University, a mentoring relationship with a woman business leader, and an introduction to golf, a news release states.

Topanga was captain of her high school women’s golf team, thrived in international baccalaureate classes, and gave back to the community through volunteer activities.

Tom says Topanga received financial assistance to get into the First Tee, and probably would not have ever chosen golf as her sport otherwise. Now, she will receive a $10,000 a year scholarship for four years to attend Rollins College in Winter Park.

That’s why Meredith preaches the importance of using golf as a vehicle to a college scholarship and future success, whether it’s on the course or in another profession. Her recent training seminar featured a man who had participated in the First Tee as a child and is now a golf professional. She’s watched her own children succeed in the sport, and sees her students working toward scholarships through golf and academics.

“I try to instill in them that if you work hard, you can do this,” Meredith says.

And at the end of the day, the First Tee youngsters learn some simple, yet important, lessons on the golf course, she says.

“They know how to shake hands, look each other in the eye, and say, ‘Good match.’”