GRANITEVILLE — There are only 54 kids from 14 countries competing at Sage Valley in one of the most elite events in junior golf this weekend, and two of them hail from the same First Tee program.
Austin Smotherman, of Loomis, Calif., and Cameron Champ, of Sacramento, have been competing against each other, as Champ said, “since I could walk.” Not only are they two of the best junior golfers in the nation with commitments already to attend Southern Methodist and Texas A&M, but they are huge success stories for The First Tee mission.
“The First Tee got me to where I am,” said Smotherman, 17. “I really can’t say enough about The First Tee. There’s too much to say, and that’s a good thing.”
The First Tee of Greater Sacramento is probably the model franchise in an organization that was first chartered in 1997 to capitalize on the Tiger Woods’ impact on youth golf. Sacramento was one of the first three metropolitan areas to sign up, converting an already successful program called SAY Golf (Sacramento Area Youth) that had been exposing kids to the game since 1983.
It has grown into a program involving 25 regional courses with 6,000 kids a year including 300 in a tournament program that hosts full-field 18-hole events every other week. Executive director Angie Dixon says Smotherman and Champ are among the to best players to come out of a program that produced 2010 PGA Tour Q-School grad Scott Gordon.
“We’ve had a lot of talented kids come through and they are in the top one percent,” said Dixon.
The First Tee is the primary beneficiary of the Junior Invitational event, receiving more than $200,000 from the inaugural event last year. It’s also an annual recipient of considerable contributions from Augusta National Golf Club, which is a founding partner in The First Tee.
So having two prominent examples of the program’s success represented at Sage Valley is a big deal. Unfortunately, it’s not a common thread among the top juniors competing this week.
“Not a lot, which is kind of disappointing,” Smotherman said when asked if he’d met many other First Tee products this week. “I feel like if it went the opposite way and more of the top players came back to The First Tee they’d improve even more.”
Smotherman and Champ are tied for 16th at 2-over 146, 10 shots behind leader Zachary Olsen who has shot consecutive 68s to stake a three-shot lead entering today’s final round.
Despite being tied, the longtime friends won’t be paired together today. However, they’ve been practicing together all week and sitting next to each other at dinners.
“We’ve always battled each other head-to-head growing up,” Smotherman said. “It would probably be 30 instances where he was up one going to the last day or I was up one going to the last day and he and I were in the same group. Our families are good friends and our names are on the same trophies back in Sacramento. And we both ended up here.”
Getting here was no surprise considering their resumes. Smotherman caught the golf bug when he participated in a Putt, Chip and Drive competition when he was 5, and despite being underage he medaled in every category.
“That lit the fire,” said his grandmother, Helen Smotherman.
He joined The First Tee at age 7 at Haggen Oaks, a municipal course. He is the only player to win the Sacramento tour’s championship every single year. He holds the record for the lowest score ever recorded in a First Tee event, shooting a course-record 63 at Del Paso Country Club, which will play host to the 2015 U.S. Senior Open.
Smotherman won the prestigious California Junior Amateur in 2011 and twice qualified to play in The First Tee Open, a Champions Tour pro-am event held annually at Pebble Beach. Paired with Denis Watson the second time, he made the cut to compete on the famed cliffside links on Sunday, with his personal claim to fame registering consecutive eagles on the par-5 6th hole.
“That’s the only event I can compare this one to,” Smotherman said of the over-the-top hospitality the juniors are treated to at Sage Valley.
Champ, 16, has applied to participate in this year’s event at Pebble Beach, and is a likely lock considering Sacramento has had the highest percentage of players in the field since the tournament’s inception.
“He’s got to earn that one,” said Champ’s father, Jeff, who isn’t planning to fork over the $600 fee to play Pebble otherwise. “The First Tee has given him opportunities to play country clubs he otherwise couldn’t.”
Champ says competing this week at Sage Valley “is a dream,” calling it the best event he’s ever played in “by far.”
But The First Tee is more than about golf, but about teaching the nine core values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment. It’s the kind of lessons that made Smotherman comfortable enough to approach former President George W. Bush after Wednesday night’s opening ceremony.
“My man,” President Bush said when Smotherman told him he was going to play for former Augusta State coach Josh Gregory at SMU next season. The Bush library is being established at SMU.
Smotherman is “Ace” certified in The First Tee’s Life Skills program, meaning he spends time passing on the core values to other kids. Sometimes that means talking; other times it means putting on a velcro suit and allowing little kids to fire wedge shots at him.
Champ is working on getting “Eagle” qualified, and is following Smotherman’s path as a First Tee leader.
“I’m starting to teach the life skills, so that’s new for me,” he said, having competed and won a First Tee event last Saturday before teaching life skills and then traveling to South Carolina.
“To be such competitive players and great golfers and still value that core values aspect of it, they are top notch kids,” said Dixon.
Regardless of how they finishtoday, Smotherman and Champ are top-notch examples of The First Tee’s reach.