By Gary Gray
Pine Oaks Golf Course recently hosted 28 kids enrolled in The First Tee of Tri-Cities program, which utilizes the facility’s expanding learning center to build character while teaching the game.
The Golf Learning Center at Pine Oaks is positioned between the 8th and 9th holes. Its free amenities include a 230-yard practice hole, a practice range where various types of shots can be honed and a 6,000-square-foot practice green where nearby bunkers help kids and other visitors learn to get out of tough situations and onto the green.
Recent improvements to the learning center include a refurbished teeing area and the placement of new sod. New target pods (mounds with flags) also have been created on the range, and various targets – some that make noise when struck, others designed much like a goalpost – are being ordered.
“Since we’ve put that out there, I see them playing the ball and using irons to get there,” said Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock, who has also volunteered as a First Tee coach for the past 12 years. “You think of a practice driving range and people just going out and whacking balls, but golf is a target sport. That’s why we created the new range. The new targets will create a Topgolf atmosphere where it’s fun and challenging.”
Topgolf is a game anyone can play and win by scoring points hitting microchipped golf balls at giant dartboard-like targets. Brock said some targets will be made of metal and be very colorful with various logos, such as Milligan or ETSU.
“We can host events and challenges that will be interesting to younger people,” Brock said. “The remainder of the green will have every kind of feature you might encounter. This includes distance control. It’s not about who can hit the longest shot. I’m talking about learning backswing and other skills.”
The First Tee program’s overall goal is to teach core values. And since coaches basically are in an outdoor classroom, Brock is hoping a pavilion can be built where participants and coaches can gather.
“One of the benefits of the program is that it brings the next generation of golfers in,” she said. “It also brings in their parents. We encourage parents to come to observe the classes and sometimes participate, so when they’re driving home and talking with their children they’re talking the same language.
“The thing we have to prepare for are tomorrow’s golfers. Some don’t have time to play 18 holes, so we’re trying to be more flexible. Pine Oaks is set up really, really well for junior golfers. Kids are 100 percent of our future. To hear young kids talk about trajectory … it’s amazing what these young hearts and minds are discovering. One of the big things I see in many of the kids that come is they may not be able to compete in football because of their size. But they learn finesse; they learn how to better themselves.”
The latest First Tee program ran from Aug. 26 through Oct. 7, and kids participated in the PLAYer, Birdie and Par classes. Brock, and Johnson City Parks and Recreation Golf Manager and First Tee coach Bryan Bentley, said kids learn responsibility from what may seem like small things, such as replacing divots and cleaning their clubs.
“The learning center is more of a practice area, but it provides kids with opportunities that will not only improve their skills in golf but also put them on a path to succeed in life,” Bentley said. “We’re teaching core values and life skills and incorporating them through golf. We teach everything from checking in when you go to a golf course to what a tee box, green and fairway are.
“The reward for any golf pro or instructor is you know you’re helping grow the game. My background as a teacher allows me to blend those skills. It’s a successful program, because it’s golf – that’s what’s getting them out there, but it allows you to teach them responsibility.”
The Golf Learning Center at Pine Oaks is located at 1709 Buffalo Road in Johnson City. For more information, call Pine Oaks Golf Course at 423.434.6250 or go to johnsoncitygolf.org. To get involved in First Tee, visit thefirsttee.org/get-involved.