- Miranda Carter
The wall framing the indoor chipping and putting green at The First Tee Pikes Peak facility on Academy Boulevard has the words "more than a game" painted in large letters across it. Facing this wall are nine more words hovering above the snack bar and micro-range hitting bays, which program director Leighton Smith says are the nine core values their youth golfing program emphasizes: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.
"During programs, we'll have around 10 to 40 kids in here at one time," says Smith. "We'll have all kinds of games on the chipping and putting green, and then in classes, we'll discuss the life skills."
Smith, alongside colleague program coordinator Sam Vosler, operate one of more than 1,090 First Tee locations throughout the nation, all of which are nonprofit organizations that possess the same values and are geared toward the same mission: developing the personal, professional and athletic skillset of youths through the game of golf, while tearing down stereotypes and creating a safe, affordable and fun environment for young people to discover their potential on and off the green.
"We're going on our fourth year," says Smith, "so we're seeing some of our participants make their way through to the next level, and it's really exciting to see."
In that timespan, their summer program has grown from less than 40 children to over 300, and the facility enables him and his colleagues to create and maintain relationships with participants and the public year-round. The First of Tee runs out of Valley Hi Golf Course during the summer seasons and uses the state-of-the-art Academy facility during colder months to continue their teaching program.
The facility includes the chipping and putting green, a snack bar with an array of tables and chairs for parents and participants, two aboutGolf PGA Tour simulators and the hitting bays, which correspond with 32-inch screens that display ball speeds, flight height and other statistics.
The public may also access the facility November through May. The First Tee provides seasonal and monthly memberships alongside the programs, as well as lessons, and also team up with the YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs to bring their message to a wider group of people.
"Golf can be like a medicine," Smith says, noting how getting outside, meeting new people and having good conversations on the course, and pressing into the game for its relaxing and competitive qualities can refine and fill a person. He enjoys observing this occurrence in the program's participants.
"I see them invest their time, and maybe it's with very little interest or very high interest, and I see it generate their excitement after they start hitting the ball."
That's the case for Zeke Williams, age 11, who says "The First Tee has impacted my life by teaching me the core values, like judgment, sportsmanship, perseverance and honesty. I've learned how to encourage people when they're doing good or bad in a sport. And I've learned to keep trying even when I'm not doing well."
His mother, Summer, adds "the coaches have become part of my 'village,' the people who are helping me raise my kids to be responsible adults. Incorporating these life skills into a game they enjoy playing is brilliant. They're learning to apply these skills to real life situations."
The First Tee welcomes youths of all interest and skill levels, and aims to initiate interest in those who might not have considered golf before. "Everyone is self-conscious at first," Smith says, but he affirms that the environment they create is safe for anyone who participates and helps them discover their "best swings and best selves."
For more information, visit thefirstteepikespeak.org or the facility located at 525 N. Academy Blvd.