Bucky Dudley has always been passionate about golf. As a kid, his parents would drop him off at the local course day after day with a friend. They were terrible, he says, but it was challenging and something to do during the long afternoons of childhood. In college, Bucky went to the Citadel to play golf and then worked as a golf professional. To him, golf became a metaphor for life, a structure for the practical applications of life lessons and rites of passage. “I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to pay forward all the life skills that golf gave to me, but I’m sure trying!” he says.
In 2006 Bucky was a founding board member of the Charleston Junior Golf Foundation. From the beginning, the Foundation was gunning to be a chapter of The First Tee. “We had to tick a lot of boxes, lay out our plans for fundraising and programming,” says Bucky. “The First Tee Network needs to see that you’re going to continue to make an impact.” It took two years, and in 2008 the organization became a formal chapter of The First Tee. The chapter covers Berkeley, Charleston, and Dorchester counties—quite a reach for a team of less than five full-time employees.
The First Tee USA is a nationwide organization and boasts over one hundred and fifty chapters. It was founded in 1997 by an impressive collection of national golf associations (USGA, LPGA, PGA TOUR, PGA of America, and the Masters Tournament) and was designed to provide affordable youth golf programs to communities without access—especially in economically depressed areas. From its inception, The First Tee wasn’t just about getting kids on the golf course. It built a mission statement around fundamental life skills and a core set of values. Children who move through the program aren’t just learning the game, but they are also learning character lessons and how to take responsibility for the way they conduct themselves in their schools, families, and communities.
If you look at a brochure for The First Tee Greater Charleston, you’ll see the words: Good Golfers. Better People. At the heart of The First Tee mission are nine core values: sportsmanship, judgment, confidence, honesty, courtesy, respect, perseverance, responsibility, and integrity. The idea is that golf is a metaphor, a structure on which to apply a value system and a set of life skills. Whenever a coach or volunteer teaches an element of the golf game, they also integrate a life skill and core value. At the end of each class, they help each participant understand how to transition that life skill and core value to their life off the course.
Take courtesy. When young players first step up to the tee, they are taught to take off their hat, shake hands with their playing partner, and to look them in the eye and introduce themselves. “We seamlessly introduce the life skill of introducing yourself,” Bucky explains. “And we apply the core value of courtesy to a golf skill.” After a while, these practical lessons create a culture of integrity. The First Tee kids are exposed to a higher standard of being, and they are provided with subtle incentives to hold themselves accountable to it.
The First Tee Greater Charleston provides a three-pronged program. The first component is what Bucky calls core programming—after-school classes held at eight different golf courses in the greater Charleston area. Kids from age five to eighteen attend weekly classes and move through eight progressive levels based on age and ability. A lead coach and a large volunteer base run each location. The ratio in the core program is four to one—for every four kids there is a coach or volunteer. Over eight hundred and fifty kids and around one hundred and seventy volunteers were committed to this core site program last year.
The second prong is an impressive network of school programs. Bucky’s team works with physical educators, providing curriculum and full set of plastic and velcro equipment to teach the early fundamentals of golf. “Right now it’s purely organic. We make an inroad with a PE teacher, or the principal understands what we’re doing—that it’s not just about golf, it’s character education— everything that the game represents.” Currently, they partner with thirty-two schools in the greater Charleston area, twenty-one of which are title one, with at-risk youth from low-income families. These first two prongs work in tandem. The core sites are spread evenly across the three counties, each golf course is just a short drive from one or more public schools. “The idea is that if you can spark the interest of a young person in the school program, then they have a golf course close by to attend a core program class,” says Bucky.
The third prong of the organization is outreach. The YMCA, the Children’s Museum of the Lowcountry, the Girl Scouts, and the Lowcountry Autism Foundation are just a few of the nonprofits that benefit from equipment and programming from The First Tee. This holistic, full-court press approach is why the organization has been so wildly successful. Bucky’s aims to have a presence in every single school in the greater Charleston area.
Kharynton Beggs started in The First Tee program when she was six. She lived in Baltimore then, and her mother wanted her to get into golf. “It wasn’t my first choice,” she says with a laugh. “I really wanted to be a gymnast.” But golf stuck. By the time she moved to Charleston in 2015, she was already quite a golfer and playing competitively. But more than anything, the program shaped Kharynton into the person she is today. “It really doesn’t matter how good you are. That’s not the point,” she says. “The goal of The First Tee is to make you a better person—which I think is pretty amazing.” Kharynton has traveled all over the country with The First Tee and even played in a PGA TOUR Champions Event at Pebble Beach Golf Links with professional Jay Haas. She has worked as a summer intern for the organization to coach and mentor young kids in the program. And she’s one heck of a good golfer.
Soon, Kharynton will graduate—from high school and also from The First Tee. She will be attending Oglethorpe University in Atlanta and plans to play on the ladies golf team. But she wants to stay connected to The First Tee. “I have always wanted to work at the home office,” she says. “I would really like to give back to the organization that shaped me into the person I am today.”
And the organization is growing rapidly. There is a 40 percent retention rate in the younger levels, and last season every introductory class reached full capacity. The programming has expanded in the last ten years to include a Golf Buddy Program, a Dollar Per Hole Program, a Junior Caddy Program, a Junior Interclub League, Summer Internships, a Young Ambassadors Council, and a fall Backpack Drive—to name a few. The organization stays nimble and tries to respond organically to the needs of the community rather than a prescribed procedure. Bucky is excited for the future. He hopes to build a small, stand-alone facility, a par 3 with a little driving range. “That would be my dream scenario!” he says with a big smile. With that much passion, it’s probably pretty darn likely.