Over the next two days, Lennard Long might find himself wondering whether to test himself against the daunting, deep bunker that hides some 75 yards short of the second green at Pebble Beach Golf Links or whether to hug the coastline to the left side of the unforgettable 18th hole. Should he face such a predicament, he could draw from his previous experiences, not along the Pacific Ocean but along the Potomac River.
It was there that Long, a 16-year-old junior at Wilson High in the District, learned to play the game that might help provide him a future, an opportunity afforded him by First Tee of Washington, D.C., an organization that uses golf as a way to develop life skills for kids. Four years ago, Long began playing regularly at East Potomac Golf Course, where he once faced a difficult spot in a match against an older player. He hit his tee shot right of the ninth fairway, nestled directly behind some trees.
“I was stuck,” he said. “I mean really stuck.”
What he did next is something golfers good and bad have experienced: He hit a shot that got him hooked. From behind the trees, he executed a huge cut — deliberately and dramatically moving the ball left to right, around the trees but toward the green. It rolled up toward the pin — and then he missed the birdie putt.
“That was the thing that kept me coming back,” Long said. “I didn’t take full advantage of it.”
Long intends to take full advantage of his opportunity this week. Beginning Friday, he’ll be one of 81 participants from First Tee chapters across the country competing in the Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach. The tournament is a Champions Tour event that incorporates First Tee participants who were selected through a rigorous and competitive application process. At noon Friday, Long will be part of the foursome of Joel Edwards — a 51-year-old pro who competes on the Champions Tour along with the stars of the PGA Tour’s over-50 circuit, Fred Couples, Hale Irwin, Bernhard Langer and the rest.
The event is in its 10th year, combining golf’s future with its past. Yet when Long’s mother, Leticia, went online to fill out the application form and select a player’s state, there was no option for “D.C.” She called the First Tee’s IT folks, and they apologized. But it shows the golfing wasteland from which Long comes; he’s the first District resident to be selected. None of the District’s public high schools currently have golf teams.
“If there’s ever a pioneer, it would be him,” said Clint Sanchez, the executive director of the District chapter of First Tee, one of 188 chapters. “He’s looked up to by the other kids in our chapter. It’s never happened before in the 10 years of the event, and we feel it’s going to be a stepping stone for us.”
Long already has taken the most important steps. A basketball player when he was younger, he wanted another outlet. When he was 12, a family friend recommended the First Tee program — which provides free lessons, use of equipment and course time to 600 D.C. kids between the ages of 7 and 18 — and Long swiftly found an athletic love. As he improved as a player — he said he is now a 3 handicap — First Tee officials began to promote him for national opportunities. Two years ago, he attended First Tee’s Life Skills and Leadership Academy at Arizona State.
“What it did for him in terms of connecting the athletic part to the academic part was really instrumental in him going further,” Leticia Long said. “It really shows you if you stay grounded academically there are some opportunities.”
This week, though, is about the golf. Long’s first round will be on the nearby Del Monte Golf Club, and he’ll play Pebble Beach in competition Saturday. He is there in part because he wrote an essay in which he identified his core value: respect. He outlined why he thought it’s important to respect anyone you meet, but he also clearly respects the sport he chose. In front of his home in the Hillcrest neighborhood in Southeast, he has a net into which he hits golf shots. At any given moment, there may be 40 or 50 golf balls around it.
“He works at it,” said Michael Pius, the senior program director at First Tee who essentially serves as Long’s coach. “And I’ve kind of challenged him the past year with different things I throw at him, trying to work on the mental side of the game.”
Last week, that included other First Tee students throwing pebbles at his ball before he took a shot or blasting heavy metal music or shouting. It all is a part of Long’s preparation for this week, when he’ll be a D.C. kid playing one of the nation’s most spectacular courses — and an example to those who might follow.
“It’s basically the Holy Grail of the First Tee,” Long said.