Troup County: It’s Tee Time

From his office window at the Troup County Recreation Center, Parks & Recreation Director Tod Tentler is watching a man rake the sand traps surrounding a hole on a new golf course. “He’s always working at something on the course,” Tentler says.

Just what you’d expect from a loyal, hardworking employee, except this man is no employee; he’s the legendary Allen Doyle, a blue-collar golfer with a dozen Champions Tour victories and millions in professional winnings. A longtime resident of LaGrange, Troup’s county seat, Doyle is also the guiding force behind the county’s newly minted First Tee program, part of a national effort to teach kids the game of golf and the valuable life lessons it holds.

Thanks to Doyle’s hard work off the links, along with that of hundreds of community volunteers, since 2003 Troup County has received 22 acres of land valued in excess of $2 million donated by the Callaway Foundation, $75,000 from the USGA, $5,000 from the PGA and $75,000 from the First Tee national authority.

A special local fund raising group chipped in with the $120,000 a year needed for maintenance and operations costs, the city of LaGrange committed a yearly $16,000 to keep fairways and classrooms open and local businesses are putting in $60,000 for day-to-day operational costs.

An annual golf event hosted by Doyle that allows locals to play with professional golfing greats – flown in on donated jet time – is raising $30,000 a year. But even with the outpouring of local and national support, at the effort’s beginning Troup County was the smallest community in the nation with a First Tee program.

However, the Troup County First Tee program has three times been featured on national television, including a program aired just after a recent British Open – not a bad audience-building lead-in for national exposure.

“No question about it, Allen Doyle has been instrumental in getting the First Tee program off the ground,” says Tim Duffey, former chairman of the Troup County Commission. “His reputation and his hard work have given us this recreation asset. But it is more than just recreation; it is also an economic boost. This adds another facet to our quality of life, and quality of life is important to business and industry. Still, we need to keep in mind the goals of the First Tee, goals that will change lives.”

Originally designed to use golf to help at-risk kids develop the best of social habits, First Tee has become popular among all social levels, thanks to the support of golfing pros such as Doyle and Tiger Woods.

First Tee is divided into three levels of learning: Par, which emphasizes basic golf skills, communication skills and self-management; Birdie, devoted to honing intermediate golf skills and teaching youngsters how to set goals in school and in life. Finally, advanced golf skills are taught at the Eagle level, where youths also learn how to resist peer pressure, build conflict resolution skills and plan for the future. Early results show Troup County kids eager for golf and life lessons alike.

In 2004, when construction began on a nine-hole course with a learning center, driving range and practice areas (the project was scheduled to be finished in 2006), impatient kids began clamoring to get in the classroom and on the tee. Local leaders scrambled and learning programs were pushed up to 2005, 10 months before the courses were set to open. Some 300 kids showed up to take a swing at the ball – and at life.

“We just got the [county] road department to push up some dirt so we could have two little 100-yard holes to get the thing started,” Tentler says. “You have to remember, golf is the only sport where you’re asked to penalize yourself. That’s an early lesson in golf; and golf is the carrot that got the kids in here where they can learn core values like responsibility, courtesy and honesty, all character builders.”

With dividends like that, Troup County residents had no problem voting to use Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST) money as seed funding to launch the First Tee program. The kids have responded by participating in cleanup projects around a local lake, and by joining in other community volunteer efforts. Another reward has come in the form of college scholarships for First Tee graduates.

For Duffey, some First Tee benefits are less noticeable. “Golf is a team builder,” he says. “And golf is a large part of the leadership in Georgia and its communities. A lot of deals are made on the golf course.”

First Tee has already brought eager kids and local economic developers together in a joint interest, Duffey says, and perhaps that could lead to the development of other common interests, even collaborations. “I think there are possibilities out there that we haven’t seen.”

Categories: Economic Development Features, Features