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Golf in the Next Generation: Internalizing Its Deepest Values

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On March 8, 2011, Gyre Entertainment, the film company we formed last year to create family-friendly films for the contemporary urban market, sponsored the NAACP Celebrity Image Awards Golf Challenge in Rancho Palos Verdes, California. One inspiring moment of a wonderful event was the introduction of a group of young people participating in one national youth golf program, the First Tee Foundation.

First Tee is one of many programs formed to enable golf skill development to help young people build life skills. There are many other great programs, such as Midnight Golf in Detroit, Sticks for Kids, the National School Golf Program, the PGA Junior Golf Program, and the Urban Youth Golf Program. Like other sports, golf teaches discipline, self-reliance, emotional maturity, and a high degree of fine motor skills control. However, golf has the added dimensions of requiring players to respect nature, to play with integrity, to play with what they've got, and to recover from adversity.

This last point particularly attracted us as Pierre, my son Mike, and I crafted the screenplay that became From the Rough. As I thought about what golf teaches, I was reminded of the humorous exchange several decades ago between Sam Snead and Ted Williams.

Williams focused on the skill required to hit a ball thrown toward him at 90-100 miles per hour by a pitcher whose goal was to get him to miss contact. However, Snead got the last laugh by pointing out that, in golf, players have to "play the foul balls." Snead noted that, whereas, in baseball, every pitch, at-bat, and game is largely independent of every other, golf, like life, requires us to grapple with the consequences of previous failures. If we mishit a baseball into foul territory, we get a new pitch. If we mishit a golf ball, we must work ourselves out of trouble.

Golf implicitly teaches young people to be resilient in working themselves out of tough situations into which their previous decisions or actions have put them. Life works that way, and the emotional maturity required to do that makes everything young people do in adult life a lot easier.

Playing from the rough also requires other life skills. For example, the Bermuda grass prevalent in the Southeastern U.S. courses on which Coach Starks' Tennessee State teams competed in From the Rough is so hard and thick that the golfer must sacrifice distance to insure a more playable lie. Playing golf from the rough requires patience and planning, in addition to emotional resilience.

Sometimes, when we hit a difficult point in life, we have to slow down, regroup, accept more modest forward progress, and even take significant time to reinvent ourselves before we can move forward. In all our lives, we are figuratively hitting from the rough at times. Internalizing this lesson in youth golf programs is an extremely valuable attribute of these programs.

Playing from the rough also requires creativity. Elite golfers change their swing and their plan of attack. They might have to hit a shot higher in the air, to hit a shot that hooks or slices around an obstacle in order to cope with the consequences of hitting from the rough toward the hole. This requires a more creative assessment and execution than would be the case if everything went well. This, too, is a valuable life skill.

What I most like about engaging young people in golf programs is that they are more likely to stay with the sport as an adult, and to be able to take advantage of the relationship-building opportunities it will give them. Hanging out with a playing partner or a foursome for 4-5 hours is a great way to get to know people in ways unlikely to be duplicated outside the golf course. We may not choose to use golf as a relationship-building mechanism, and, indeed, I have used it that way relatively infrequently, but having it available is vital for certain situations, particularly in bonding with non-U.S. business executives. I built a strong relationship with a business partner in India in 1999, and ultimately effected an acquisition of his company by playing golf with him at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, the oldest country club outside the British Isles.

The time to teach these values is when people are young, less fixed in their life path, and more receptive to teaching and mentoring. I commend those members of the golf establishment who are providing these opportunities.

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