First Tee at 10 - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

First Tee at 10

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SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) -

During the last 10 years, the First Tee of Savannah has delivered a combination of golf lessons and life lessons to tens of thousands of local children.

"I think people are starting to understand," said Executive Director Barbara Essig, "that we are a youth-development organization."

The First Tee has delivered its multiple messages through clinics and in a classroom setting, at golf courses, in schools and on military bases.

And it has done so by putting the grip, set up and swing into an educational package that includes nine core values and valuable networking.

"Honesty, integrity, perseverance, those are the pillars for building," said Dr. Ezra Merritt, a First Tee board member from early on. "Golf is the last thing we are trying to build."

The group has also built relationships, introducing youngsters to local doctors, lawyers and executive as well as local icons, such as the late Ben Tucker, who was a tireless supporter of  the First Tee.

"I've made a lot of connections through the First Tee," said longtime participant Lenorris Williams. "I know a lot of people, and without all those connections, I don't know where I'd be.''

Williams started with the First Tee shortly after its beginning, and this spring signed a scholarship to play college golf at Livingstone College in Salisbury, N.C.

He is one of a growing number of the program's alumni achieving on and off the course.

"That's the fruit that we're looking for," said Dr. Merritt. "It's like teaching school. You don't know until years later what's going to develop."

"They learn those nine core values and they're better people," added Joe Matthews, who worked with the First Tee when it started in Savannah. "All the people that have gone through the First Tee, I see them in the community. I see them grown up."

Much of that growth actually has come about because of golf, through meeting some of the game's legends and learning its unique lessons.

"These golf courses have been a safe haven," said Essig. "It's been a classroom outside, where the learning environment is safe."

"I can remember back in the day, when I couldn't even get on the golf course except to caddie," said Dr. Merritt. "And so to see all these kids having access now to all these new opportunities really makes me feel good."

The First Tee of Savannah will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a gala on October 11 at the Westin Savannah Harbor Resort. The event will include a tribute to Tucker, who passed away last year. 

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