Jaron Waters is excited to make his first trip out of Maryland. Stephen Mooney hopes to become better at golf. And Patrick Dooley is looking forward to staying in the dorm rooms.
There will be plenty of new experiences for the three Montgomery County boys who will participate in The First Tee's sixth annual life skills and leadership academy, which begins Monday and runs through July 22 at Colbert Hills Golf Course and Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan.
"I never knew I could get a trip like this for playing golf," said Waters, a rising sophomore at Sherwood High School.
Waters, 14, of Sandy Spring; Mooney, 15, of Laytonsville; and Dooley, 14, of Gaithersburg, are three of the 95 golfers, ages 13-17, selected to attend the national event. They are the first chosen from The First Tee's Montgomery County chapter.
The First Tee, a nonprofit initiative of the World Golf Foundation, is a no-cost developmental program that provides young people, regardless of economic circumstance, an opportunity to learn golf and gain life skills. The idea behind it is to broaden golf's appeal. The First Tee seeks to change golf's exclusive image by making the sport accessible to all and by fostering a love of the game at an early age. The First Tee began in 1997 and has grown to 165 chapters across the country.
The Montgomery County chapter, which is less than five years old, has experienced tremendous growth in its short lifetime. A year ago, nearly 225 kids were involved in the program. Organizers expect that number to at least double by the end of this year. By partnering with such organizations as Montgomery County's Housing Opportunity Commission and the Boys and Girls Club of Silver Spring, The First Tee of Montgomery County has introduced golf to many kids who otherwise would not have had an opportunity to play the sport.
There are three eight-week sessions -- in the spring, summer and fall -- held at Laytonsville and Sligo Creek golf courses. Montgomery Village Country Club and Olney Golf Park also are affiliated with the program. The golfers are taught basic golf skills -- swing, short game, rules and etiquette -- by PGA teaching professionals and trained volunteers. The students begin at the practice tee then advance onto the course as they progress. Many of the participants have never touched a golf club until they join the program.
Mooney was one of the ones who didn't have any golf experience, but he's quickly picked up the game. He started the program 21/2 years ago and has already broken 100.
"It's pretty fun because it's about you," said Mooney, a rising sophomore at St. John's High School. "Most of the time I'll do better than I did previously so I know that I'm improving."
Learning how to play golf is only part of what The First Tee is about. The program also emphasizes character development by using golf to develop communication skills, set goals and instill respect for others.
"They teach us stuff about golf but also how it can help you in life and at school," said Dooley, a rising freshman at Gaithersburg High School.
Dale Carlson-Bebout, executive director of the Montgomery County chapter, has seen how kids in the program have shed their shyness and become more confident and considerate of others.
"A lot of these kids don't have role models for basic social skills," she said. "I see children responding to the coach and volunteer role models . . . and that carries over to other parts of their lives."
Each year, a select few First Tee participants are chosen to attend the national academy in Kansas. Candidates must go through a rigorous application process. Besides having their golf skills certified, they must write five essays. Waters, Mooney and Dooley were rewarded for their efforts with an invitation to participate in this summer's academy. They are eagerly anticipating what lies ahead.
"We're going to play 18 holes of golf, meet golf instructors who will help us get better in our game," Waters said. "We're going to meet coaches and people who've been golf pros."
Pia Nilsson, who coached Annika Sorenstam when she was an amateur, is one of the instructors at the camp.
It is also a chance for them to see how they measure up against their peers. "I want to see what's also out there, how kids are doing in other areas of the country," Dooley said.
It won't be all golf. There will be sessions on career exploration and workshops on self-management and decision-making. Among the activities planned is a trip to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Carlson-Bebout hopes that Waters, Mooney and Dooley will inspire other First Tee participants.
"I told them since they're the first ones they need to come back and share their experience . . . because it's an important example for the other kids," she said. "I hope that they get a real sense of the breadth of the program that they're part of."