While many people see golf as little more than a leisurely pastime or, as famously coined, “a good walk spoiled,” Tiffani English considers the game something that can mean so much more to a child — a window into some important life lessons. As executive director of First Tee of Lake County, which she has been with in some capacity for nearly 15 years, English oversees an organization that, yes, teaches golf to hundreds of children a year, but also looks to instill values that extend well beyond the course.
“The original goal of First Tee was to bring golf and all of its inherent values to children who wouldn’t normally have access to the game,” she says. “We have nine core values — honesty, integrity, perseverance, sportsmanship, courtesy, confidence, respect, responsibility and judgment — that we highlight in every aspect of our program with a seamless integration of our life skills program with the golf curriculum.”
Focused on kids age 5 through 18, First Tee’s primary on-course programming unfolds throughout Lake County from spring through fall, with Lost Marsh Golf Course in Hammond serving as the organization’s home base.
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Within and beyond the golf season, First Tee partners with youth groups, church groups, YMCAs and other civic organizations to advance its golf and life skills curriculum. English and her team also work with the elementary schools in Hammond to have physical education teachers offer First Tee’s curriculum at their own pace. And the organization has a junior advisory council program with activities geared to kids 12 and older, and oversees a number of tournaments and outings throughout the year.
In the winter, First Tee maintains a golf simulator at Lost Marsh that allows its instructors to continue providing lessons for kids and adults.
While First Tee does charge a nominal fee for its programs (which in some cases is offset through the sports voucher program offered by the City of Hammond), the organization is primarily funded through donations from the community. Kids who don’t have their own clubs can use First Tee’s many available sets, most of which are also donated.
“We believe golf is something that should be open to everyone, regardless of ability, socioeconomics, gender, race or anything else – when you get out on the course, all of those things get wiped away,” English notes. “So we try to eliminate any barrier or obstacle to kids joining the program, which is why we really do rely on community support in terms of donations.”
Yet while trying to secure those donations is an ongoing challenge, English says the bigger issue she and her team struggle with is trying to get people to understand that while First Tee operates under the auspices of golf, there’s more to its mission than just the game.
“We are not a youth sports organization – we are a youth development organization,” she explains. “If a kid wants to be great at golf, we have instructors and resources to help them do that. But what we really want to do is give every kid the tools he or she needs to overcome a lifetime of challenges and prepare for success. When we look at the social and physical and mental health issues that our kids are facing these days, we know that getting them outside and getting them involved with something new and getting them around other kids and these great instructors, we’re really filling a need in the community. We’re so much more than just golf.”
First Tee of Lake County accepts donations of money and gently used golf equipment throughout the year. For more information on programming or making a donation, visit firstteelakecounty.org.