SI Vault
June 11, 2012
The kids of Salinas are just miles from opulence, yet they live a world away, in a place where gangs and violence hold sway and tough choices come early. The First Tee of Monterey County is often the only alternative
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June 11, 2012

East Of Eden, Golf's Good Fight

The kids of Salinas are just miles from opulence, yet they live a world away, in a place where gangs and violence hold sway and tough choices come early. The First Tee of Monterey County is often the only alternative

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To understand the unique advantages and challenges of The First Tee of Monterey County, it helps to begin with a tour of the area. Start 100 miles down the coast from the Olympic Club, in Pebble Beach, home to world-famous golf courses and $20 million houses. Travel east through the charming town of Monterey, onto the gilded corridor of Highway 68, past the gated entrances to the Jack Nicklaus--designed Pasadera Country Club and Clint Eastwood's private playground, Tehama Golf Club.

As you continue east and cross the Salinas River, suddenly the dark soil is striped with row crops. This is the world of John Steinbeck, who surely would have found a novel in the brutal lives of the Hispanic workers, stooped over in the fields, picking lettuce and strawberries and broccoli. As you move into the city of Salinas (pop. 150,441), tidy middle-class neighborhoods give way to houses with yellowed lawns and peeling paint. Look carefully, and on fences and street signs you can find graffiti like xiv or 13; these are the markers of warring streets gangs: the Norteños and Sureños. (N, the 14th letter of the alphabet, is favored by the Norteños. The 13th, M, is claimed by the Sureños and is a nod to Mexico, where both gangs have their roots.) In 2009 the streets of Salinas were bloodied by 29 killings, one of the highest per capita murder rates in the country. Virtually all the slayings occurred in East Salinas and were gang-related. Aggressive policing and community outreach have curtailed some of the violence, but in East Salinas there remains an abiding wariness. "People are afraid to leave their houses," says Jose Perez, a high school sophomore who resides in East Salinas. "It's a tough environment for kids to grow up in."

In the middle of this neighborhood is the 63-acre campus of The First Tee of Monterey County (TFTMC), with its pastoral nine-hole golf course and a gleaming clubhouse with a black marble atrium and 15 shiny computers. The First Tee has been a safe haven since its founding in 2004, but in the last couple of years it has taken on a larger role in the community through a partnership with East Salinas's Alisal Union School District. Every morning buses paid for by The First Tee stop in front of one of 11 elementary schools to bring fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders to the campus for two hours of golf instruction and inculcate the nine "core values" that are the backbone of The First Tee's mission. After school the buses ferry up to 100 kids from across the district back to The First Tee, where they get a free healthy snack and a comfortable setting in which to do their homework and spend time with friends. There is also organized golf instruction for players of varying experience, but that is optional. "Whether or not a kid touches a golf club is not that important to us," says Barry Phillips, TFTMC's executive director. "The point is to give them a safe, nurturing environment. But even those who say they're not interested in golf, once they see the other kids having so much fun, they're drawn to it."

Education is emphasized—the kids can't go to the golf course or range until they've completed their homework. Through a partnership with Cal State--Monterey Bay and Hartnell College, tutors are always on hand. Other role models abound. Tall and slender, with the beginnings of a wispy mustache, Jose is a regular after-school presence. When he's not honing his athletic swing, he can be found in the clubhouse playfully interacting with the younger children. "A lot of the kids I grew up with are in gangs or in jail," he says. "They've made really bad decisions. Being here makes me feel good about myself. There's a family atmosphere, where we all look out for each other. I definitely feel a responsibility to set a good example."

Every two weeks more than 2,000 kids pass through The First Tee of Monterey County. In all, nearly 6,000 "members" between the ages of four and 17 use the facility. It is located only a couple of blocks from the de facto demilitarized zone between Norteño and Sureño territories, but in eight years the only on-campus crime has been a robbery of the pro shop till. "The community respects what we're trying to do here, even the gangsters," says Pauline Nocon, a high school freshman. "There's a big white sign out front, but there is never any graffiti."

Pauline is one of The First Tee's quintessential success stories. She lives in East Salinas in a modest-sized house shared by her parents, two grandparents, three aunts, two uncles and three cousins, but she is on scholarship at Monterey's York School, an elite prep academy with a tuition of $26,375. The First Tee was instrumental in getting her to York—she researched the school on the clubhouse computers and perfected her application with the help of the on-site tutors. Pauline's parents didn't know she was applying until she had to get their signature for the completed application. "This place gave me the confidence and skills I needed to achieve my dreams," says Pauline, who has been a First Tee regular since the fifth grade. She hopes to go into law and has already targeted Harvard for her undergraduate studies. Stanford is the backup plan.

It takes a substantial investment to alter the trajectories of kids like Jose and Pauline. The annual operating budget of The First Tee of Monterey County is $2.4 million. Ten percent of that comes from an annual grant from the Monterey Peninsula Foundation, which runs the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am and The First Tee Open, a Champions tour event played at Pebble that pairs the pros with kids selected from First Tee facilities around the country. Another $275,000 or so comes from the pro shop—the nine-hole course and range are open to the public—and other revenue streams, leaving nearly $2 million a year that must be raised through donations. And yet The First Tee of Monterey County's strategic plan calls for a doubling of the number of kids it will reach by 2015. "How are we going to do it?" asks Steve John, TFTMC's president and CEO. "It's pretty simple: fund-raise, fund-raise, fund-raise. Followed by more fund-raising."

This is doable in a well-heeled community that is passionate about golf and home to brand-name resorts that are at the heart of a robust tourism industry. But Monterey County is not the only First Tee with designs on expansion. The other 198 chapters have a mandate to grow, fueled by The First Tee's year-old national campaign to raise $100 million. (Nearly three quarters of that has already been pledged.) For all the progress being made in East Salinas, it raises a larger question: Is The First Tee model sustainable?

Seven months after Tiger Woods's arrival as a cross-cultural superstar at the 1997 Masters, The First Tee was born under the aegis of the World Golf Foundation. It was lost on no one that Woods had been raised on ratty public courses, just as the boardroom midwife to the birth of The First Tee, PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, had learned the game on scruffy military tracks. From the beginning The First Tee had the financial backing of the sport's most powerful institutions: the PGA Tour, USGA, PGA of America, LPGA and the Masters among them.

Woods was supposed to change the face of golf, and here was the first national organization dedicated to bringing the game, and its values, to disadvantaged kids. The money poured in, and heartwarming First Tee commercials became ubiquitous. The First Tee of Monterey County was created as a passion project of the area's golf aristocracy. Leading the way was Ollie Nutt, who as the top guy at the Monterey Peninsula Foundation vetted the amateurs who are invited to the Crosby Clambake. Nutt's friends Peter Ueberroth and Clint Eastwood were among the early benefactors, with the latter signing on as a board member.

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