Originally created 11/14/97

Plan launched to attract youngsters to golf



DETROIT -- Earl Woods' dream for his son Tiger, the 1997 Masters champion, is going national.

"This is the biggest thing I have seen in golf in my lifetime," Woods said Thursday in New York as a coalition of major golf organizations announced a multimillion-dollar plan to make golf more accessible and affordable to youngsters.

"Dream big," said Woods, his voice cracking and his eyes welling with tears. "Never give up your dreams. Today we are fighting for an opportunity for these kids to participate in their dream."

The initiative, called The First Tee and organized by the non-profit World Golf Foundation, plans to create hundreds of new golf facilities over the next 10 years.

Jack Stephens, chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club, made a personal contribution of $5 million. Augusta National, which had general manager Jim Armstrong present at the New York City ceremony, leads a list of private and public clubs and courses that have agreed to assist the program.

No monetary contribution figure was available from Augusta National, even though PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said the primary organizations involved in the project were contributing $5 million to $6 million over the first few years.

"While the focus of The First Tee will be introducing young people to golf, everyone will be welcome to join those of us who love the game and want to see it grow," said former President George Bush, the honorary chairman who spoke Thursday in Central Park.

Joining Bush and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem in Central Park were U.S. Golf Association president Judy Bell, Tiger Woods Foundation chairman Earl Woods, PGA player Tom Watson and LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley.

"Those of us who believe in the values of golf want to see the opportunity to play the game extended to all segments of our population," Finchem said.

Later in the day, Woods brought a crowd of several hundred people to their feet at the Detroit Athletic Club with another emotional speech.

"Don't let your children give up their dreams," Woods said, again trembling with emotion. "Help them and share and help this program."

The coalition of golf groups, along with city, state and Ford Motor Co. officials, announced that the Belle Isle Golf Course, a nine-hole facility, would have a practice area ready next year.

"Have you ever seen so many people, so eager to plant a blade of grass in a ghetto," Woods said looking at the dignitaries, including Bush, on stage with him.

Another announcement was scheduled for later in the day in Houston.

Despite the fact that more than 80 percent of the 25 million golfers in the United States play on public access courses, well-off adult players are largely responsible for the game's recent growth.

The average age of the beginning golfer is 29 and less than 2 percent of children ages 12-17 are introduced to golf each year, according to the National Golf Foundation, one of the project's sponsors.

Of those under 17 exposed to golf, only 15 percent are from families earning less than $30,000 annually.

And, in an issue dramatized by the success of the 21-year-old Woods, only 3 percent of golfers in the United States are black and only 2 percent are Hispanic.

"Those numbers have to change," said Finchem, chairman of the World Golf Foundation. "Golf can teach many lessons and open many doors, but it has been too difficult for many people, particularly kids, to find affordable access to the game."

Part of Woods' impact has been a noticeable increase in the number of children, minorities and newcomers in galleries at PGA Tour events.

And the record victory in April by Woods at the Masters -- played at Augusta National, a private club that symbolizes the exclusive side of the game -- underlined the need for the game to expand its base.

The Tiger Woods Foundation was started a year ago to help those from disadvantaged backgrounds get involved in golf.

"Our goals are compatible with those of The First Tee," Earl Woods said. "We have pledged our full support to the new program."

The initial two-year goal of The First Tee is to identify sites for 100 golf facilities that will be able to introduce golf to as many as 1,000 children and adults annually.

The First Tee hopes to line up 50 or more trustees who will contribute at least $1 million to serve as seed money for the initiative. All proceeds from the World Golf Hall of Fame, which opens next spring near St. Augustine, Fla., will go to The First Tee project.

"This is the first time all the major golf organizations have come together to work cooperatively," LPGA commissioner Jim Ritts said.

Local projects will draw on support of area companies, such as Ford Motor Co. in Detroit and Shell Oil in Houston.

Among the options for facilities will be a 3-hole course, a pitch-and-putt course, a 9-hole course and 18-hole courses. All will include a practice range and putting green as well as classroom and meeting space.

Virtually every major golf organization has backed the project, including the PGA Tour, the LPGA, the PGA of America, the USGA, the Tiger Woods Foundation, the National Minority Golf Association and the National Association of Junior Golfers.

The type of facility built in each community will depend on the community's need and support, utilizing the available land to create quality practice and instruction areas as well as a place to play the game. All facilities will be open to the public with an emphasis on playing opportunities for youngsters. Ties to existing local junior programs will be encouraged.

Communities or organizations interested in being part of The First Tee should contact: The First Tee, World Golf Foundation, P.O. Box 3085, St. Augustine, Fla., 32085-3085.