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First Tee program focuses on more than golf

Contact Reporterkholtzman@vagazette.com

A 30-second commercial for The First Tee closes with a teenager walking toward a golf bag to place a club inside while facing the camera and saying, "I learned a lot at The First Tee. I even learned how to play golf."

That speaks volumes to Yorktown's Tom Carnevale about what he set out to accomplish when he helped found The First Tee Virginia Peninsula five years ago.

The Peninsula chapter of the national youth golf program has grown from 33 participants upon its establishment to now approaching 1,000 by the end of the year, all the while emphasizing inclusivity and promoting nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance and courtesy.

About half of the current Peninsula players hail from Williamsburg.

Golf skills, while important, are secondary in The First Tee Virginia Peninsula, which has enjoyed such rapid growth in recent years that its leadership must now address how best to accommodate its growing army of young golfers.

Considering the numbers he started with, determining the next step is a good problem to have for Carnevale, who as executive director has overseen the gradual growth of the local chapter of the national youth program that served more than 5.3 million youth players in 2016.

"Right now, we're at a stage where we have to figure out where we're going to go from here because it's gotten so big," Carnevale said. "A thousand children at seven different locations is a big challenge for two people."

The locations now include Colonial Williamsburg's Golden Horseshoe Golf Club (Spotswood and Green courses), Colonial Heritage Golf Club, Two Rivers Country Club, the Pines Golf Course at Fort Eustis, Eaglewood Golf Course at Langley, the Hamptons Golf Course, and Kiln Creek Golf Club.

Carnevale said the program started with a small board of directors including Pat Parcells, the retired former Riverside Regional Medical Center administrator.

The other person tasked with overseeing the growth of the program is Jessica Huss, a California native and former Cal Poly golfer that took over as The First Tee Virginia Peninsula program director three years ago when there were still only around 250 participants.

Volunteers are also paramount. There are more than 24,000 nationwide and more than 100 in the Peninsula chapter.

Carnevale said progress rocketed when Huss took over.

She said about a third of The First Tee Virginia Peninsula players are girls, close to the 39 percent of The First Tee players nationwide that are girls.

The values, more than golf itself, are a major part of what attracted the families of Williamsburg youth golfers Sophie Freiling and Madi Beacham to The First Tee Virginia Peninsula, which held its second annual Kid-Am last month at the Spotswood course.

Freiling, 15, is a rising sophomore at Lafayette High, where she played on the Rams golf team, while Beacham, 11, recently closed out the spring semester at Norge Elementary.

Freiling started playing with The First Tee in a summer camp three years ago.

The First Tee Virginia Peninsula features instruction for ages 5-6 and 7-17 and fall, spring and summer sessions. The summer session, which runs until Aug. 19, starts on Monday.

"I kind of got into it from going to Kingsmill and watching the women play," Freiling said. "That's what sparked my interest."

Sophie Freiling's favorite player is German star Sandra Gal and Beacham is a big fan of Australian Minjee Lee, who won the LPGA Kingsmill Championship in 2015.

In each case, the young Williamsburg golfers were won over through close access to the pros at Kingsmill, like the forecaddie program that has annually allowed The First Tee participants to shadow LPGA golfers during their Pro-Am rounds.

Beacham's father, Mike, is a coach in The First Tee and believes the program has helped instill confidence in each of his girls.

"I think it makes them better students," Mike Beacham said. "It allows them to communicate well."

"It's a great sport to teach you the life lessons, which is what First Tee is all about," Sophie's mother Catherine Freiling said. "I respect the fact that the program is not geared around just learning the game, but learning how to deal with things you're going to face in life."

The First Tee Virginia Peninsula, which is a branch of the Peninsula Metropolitan YMCA, works closely with the Boys and Girls Club to help what Carnevale calls under-served communities.

"One of the challenges is how do the kids get to the golf course," Carnevale said. "If they're under-served, they don't have the resources to do that. Teaming up with the Boys and Girls Club, the Boys and Girls Club bring the kids to the golf course."

The First Tee then provides the gear necessary to play.

"With that partnership," Carnevale said, "we're able to reach out and serve kids that would never have the opportunity."

For leadership, players and coaches, the overarching theme for The First Tee is those nine core values.

For Carnevale, if the program produces any college players, that's great. Pro players; even better.

"But what we want," Carnevale said, "is to have children who are very successful in life come out of this program."

Holtzman can be reached by phone at 757-298-5830.

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