It’s a beautiful fall day on the River Course. A crowd of fifty fans out behind a foursome striding down the 14th fairway. Russell Henley, Ben Martin, Charles Frost, and Phillip Mollica are competing in a match play to benefit The First Tee, an international youth development program that puts young kids on the golf course. Each player has been paired with a First Tee caddy, and between holes kids get to walk with the players, ask questions, and even practice their swings. For the kids, it’s a dream. And the serious golf enthusiasts show up, too, here to see the pros up close, without PGA crowds. The afternoon is an exhibition of sorts. Each player wears a mic so the audience can hear strategy, and a bit of friendly banter. The Kiawah Island Club will make a $100 donation for every birdie, $500 for every eagle.
Henley and Martin are top earners on the Tour and PGA Ambassadors for the Kiawah Island Club. Today Martin is paired with his golf coach and friend, Charles Frost. Frost is the pro at the River Course and recently played in the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Henley is paired with an old friend, pro Phillip Mollica. It’s a joy to watch the four players interact, jabbing and joking as they play an afternoon round. On the 16th tee box, Henley drapes an arm over Mollica’s shoulders. He says something under his breath, and the two suppress a laugh as Frost tees off.
For the Charleston Chapter of The First Tee, this is a big day. “The fundraising aspect is great, and it certainly makes a really big impact on our program, but more than anything it is amazing to watch the kids interact with the players. The exposure is huge,” says Bucky Dudley, the Charleston Chapter’s Director of Operations.
The First Tee is a robust and thriving organization, with over ten million participants since 1997 and the PGA Tour and the United States Golf Association listed among the founding partners. More than twenty thousand kids participate in the greater Charleston area each year. The program centers around a set of nine core values, like honesty, perseverance, integrity, and sportsmanship. Golf is the platform for teaching life skills. “Our local mission is to expose as many kids as we can to the game and to the core values—especially the kids who would never make it to a golf course otherwise,” says Staci Bennett, Chapter President.
Olivia Erwin, a fifteen-year-old Ace-level player, caddies for Phillip Mollica. She has been in The First Tee program for three years. “It teaches you how to have perseverance and courage. And to respect people as you would want to be respected. Everyone at First Tee is like family.”
Indeed the programming includes a lot more than golf lessons. As a high school player, Maya Timmons has a strong golf game, but her role in the organization goes far beyond the course. “There’s a lot of community service, working with younger kids, and we just started a mentoring program,” she explains. This holistic approach to youth development is what makes the program so successful. And a day like today brings it all together: the kids get to meet the pros and represent The First Tee as impressive young adults, shaking hands and engaging members. “Really they’re learning how to be good people,” says Bennett.
Henley drops to a low squat on the 14th green and squints. “Get in there and get comfortable. I feel like that’s the biggest thing with putting, using your instincts and not trying to be so precise,” he says. Frost is also lining up a shot. “I think that’s good advice. It’s a lot easier to have touch when you’re not trying to be so precise, when you’re relaxed and free,” the pro replies. The crowd quiets as he putts…and misses. Henley jokes, “See, that was an example of overanalyzing.” The crowd erupts with laughter. Frost laughs with him. “Well most people don’t break into a clinic in the middle of a round. I like how you did that right before I had to three-putt.”
At the end of the round, the players line up with the kids for a group photo as the sun sets over the marsh on the18th green. As the crowd disperses, a young First Tee teen, Richard Martin, approaches Henley and challenges him to a quick chipping contest. Henley accepts. Ricky is fifteen, autistic, and an avid golfer. “This is a kid that, four or five years ago, wouldn’t have even spoken to Russell Henley,” says Bennett. “He didn’t have the social skills to interact like that.” Now Ricky is holding his own against Henley, asking questions between shots. It comes down to a draw, and Ricky shakes Henley’s hand, thanking him. “I think I beat him, but I’m not sure,” says Ricky.