The First Tee of the Cape Fear Region: off and running

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By Elsa Bonstein, Golf Gab

In August 2004, I wrote a column about Rusty and Carol Petrea and their dream of establishing a chapter of The First Tee in Brunswick County. They had built a 20-acre golf facility with three greens, multiple tees and a practice putting area. At that time, they were in the process of building a learning center with offices, classrooms and locker rooms.
In November 2005, that dream came true when The First Tee of Brunswick County received its charter from the national office and became one of nearly 200 chapters in the United States and around the world.
Starting with a handful of participants and a few volunteers, the program has grown in the last eight years and now it impacts more than 7,000 Brunswick County youth. The First Tee is in all our elementary schools and all golf courses support its activities in some fashion from programs to tournaments to special events.
Several years ago, I had an opportunity to speak with Steve Mona, CEO of the World Golf Foundation, and he told me our chapter went from fledging to flagship in eight years because in Brunswick County we have a “perfect storm” for The First Tee.
“You have a temperate climate, which allows you to run golf programs outdoors year round,” he said. “You have lots of golf courses and many retired golfers who want to be volunteers. You have a school board and administration that supports the programs and values of The First Tee.”   
Today, because of what happened here in our county, The First Tee of the Cape Fear Region is growing and thriving in Wilmington and in New Hanover, Duplin and Pender counties.
Initially, The First Tee was a sad story in that area because in July 2009 The First Tee of Wilmington had shut its doors.
But now, with a leg up from our chapter, The First Tee of the Cape Fear Region is well on its way.
On Friday afternoon, I visited the D.C. Virgo School in Wilmington to watch its program in action and to meet with some of the coaches and leaders.  E.B. Bartlett is the executive director.
“We had several strategic planning sessions with Rusty and Carol Petrea and the staff from your chapter and now we’ve been in operation for 10-11 months. It’s going well and I’m excited about our prospects.
“We’re in seven schools, impacting over 3,000 youth. We have three after-school locations: Belvedere, Masonboro and Echo Farms golf courses, plus we’re looking to get some land to establish our own facility.”
E.B. has been to Cinghiale Creek, the home course of The First Tee of Brunswick County, and believes that obtaining its own facility is essential to the growth of his chapter.
“We are looking at several locations in the area, including some land at Olsen Park,” he said. “Everyone wants land for ballparks, soccer fields and tennis courts. We’re in competition with other groups, but we’re hoping to get a few acres that will allow us to build a learning center or clubhouse for the kids, plus putting, chipping and practice areas for them.”
E.B. explained that although the golf courses in his area have been extremely cooperative and generous, he needs a place where kids can learn the raw skills of golf before they go out and play the real game.
“We would like our site to mirror what you have in Brunswick County,” he said. “It’s condensed, holds a lot of areas for activity and unites the chapter with a central location for meetings, coaches’ training and kids’ activities.”
Craig Sandstrum is the program director at The First Tee of the Cape Fear Region. A PGA golf professional, Craig is enthusiastic about the program.
“We’re here at the D.C. Virgo School every Friday for their enrichment program,” he said. “The kids love the program and we set up in a big field behind the school. We mostly use SNAG (Starting New at Golf) equipment, but sometimes, we allow the kids to hit real clubs, but not drivers because they are so strong, they can put the golf balls into the police department over there.”
He pointed to a distant building on the other side of the chain-link fence.
SNAG equipment uses Velcro balls and plastic clubs and tees, plus various targets. During the session, Craig put on a suit designed to capture the Velcro balls and ran around the field while the kids tried to hit him. Several balls landed and stayed attached to Craig to the rousing cheers of the participants.
“We’ve had the women’s golf team from UNCW come out to help us and we’re working to get the men’s team on board, too,” he said. “These kids need role models. Meeting university students who also play golf is a good thing for them.”
Chuck Kuebler is a volunteer and member of the Core Leaders Team of The First Tee of the Cape Fear Region.
“We’re working hard with other youth organizations like the Girls and Boys Clubs, the YMCA and church youth groups to get the word out about what we do and to attract more young people,” he said. “We will be sending kids to the new North Carolina Life Skills and Leadership Academy at Cinghiale Creek on July 15-21. Once our kids are there for a week of total immersion in The First Tee and all the fun, they’ll return here and really talk it up with their friends.   
“We are taking this group on a field trip to a real driving range soon. They’ll have a chance to hit real golf balls as hard as they want.”
D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy is a Blue Ribbon School near the airport in Wilmington. It was a middle school built in the 1960s that closed. It has reopened with only sixth-graders attending this year. Next year, seventh grade will be added and the following year it will be a middle school with grades six through eight.
The kids I met were enthusiastic and engaged in learning the game of golf. The coaches were teaching and having fun with the kids.
They already have a player card and are planning a Future Generations Tournament for Nov. 2 at Porters Neck Plantation and Country Club. They are looking for corporate sponsors for their special events and for programs. With our chapter as a template and their own opportunities to explore, The First Tee of the Cape Fear Region will grow and prosper.
“We are a different community from Brunswick County,” E.B. said. “We’re more urban, with more schools and different issues than our more rural neighbors to the south. As we grow, we will assume our own identity, and that’s good.
“We are very grateful to Rusty and Carol Petrea and the leadership of The First Tee of Brunswick County for helping establish this chapter under the auspices of the Carol H. Petrea Youth Foundation.”  

Golf Gab groaner
Murphy’s Laws of Golf: A 2-foot putt counts the same as a 2-foot drive. Never wash your ball on the tee of a water hole. There is no such thing as a friendly wager. The only sure way to get a par is to leave a 4-foot birdie putt 2 inches short of the hole. (Submitted by Dale Calhoon.)

Elsa Bonstein is a golf columnist for the Beacon. Reach her at elanbon@atmc.net. Follow her at facebook.com/elsa.bonstein.