First Tee Virginia Blue Ridge celebrates another year of success

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Derek Norberg, executive director of First Tee Virginia Blue Ridge, speaks to donors at this week’s Farmington event.

For LPGA golfer Lauren Coughlin, First Tee provided a first step toward an unfamiliar sport that became a lifelong passion. For Dr. Emily Callahan, First Tee has become a place where her young son has discovered his own passion.

For countless other kids, First Tee Virginia Blue Ridge has its own meaning, allowing them to discover the beauty of golf while learning life skills, developing character and the sense of belonging to something meaningful.

The local chapter of this international organization — supported by the PGA and LPGA but totally locally funded — celebrated its continued success this week with a special event for donors, held at the practice range at Farmington Country Club. There, kids showed off their golf skills in driving, chipping and putting (see accompanying videos).

Anyone paying attention, though, couldn’t help but notice the quality behavior, courtesy and good sportsmanship in addition to determination the kids exhibited throughout the event.

“There’s no ceiling for our First Tee program,” said Derek Norberg, executive director of the local chapter, which is aided by Farmington, Birdwood and Meadowcreek golf courses. “We thank everyone for their continued support in making a difference in the lives of our children.”

The organization depends solely on funds from local donations and is always seeking coaching and volunteers to help instruct the kids, not only in golf skills but also in life skills, building self identity, collaborating with others, respect, developing confidence, sportsmanship and more.

Coughlin, who hails from the Tidewater region of the state, was first introduced to golf via the First Tee program there. She went on to an outstanding junior career in high school, earned a scholarship to the University of Virginia, where she starred, and a spectacular amateur career before turning professional, and is now a competitor on the LPGA Tour, where she is off to her best career start (Coughlin will be featured in a separate piece this week).

“I know first-hand what an impact First Tee can have on someone,” said Coughlin, one of the program’s most famous alums. “Maybe someone from First Tee Virginia Blue Ridge will make it to the LPGA Tour some day.”

Coughlin, as she has done in the past, interacted with several of the First Tee kids during her visit, just as members of the current UVA women’s team have over the past several years. In fact, the Virginia women showed up at the event to show their support for the program.

Callahan — who was a competitive swimmer at the University of North Carolina, and is now executive director of the Council of Autism — told the audience of her family’s journey with her young son, Jack, who has battled metastatic cancer. The family also helped found “Jack Fest,” a child-focused, fun-filled festival held annually at Foxfield.

During several months of treatment that temporarily relocated the family in Philadelphia, they found relief in playing putt-putt in a downtown area. Suddenly, young Jack became a fan of the sport.

“It wasn’t Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck he would choose to watch on TV, but rather Phil Mickelson and other professional golf stars,” Dr. Callahan explained.

Her son’s passion for golf led the family to First Tee, and has even inspired Callahan and her husband to take golf lessons.

“I don’t know where golf will take Jack,” she explained, “but the values go beyond the golf course.”

First Tee Virginia Blue Ridge (see advertisement for the organization at the bottom of this page for programming, contact information and more), has three major fundraisers coming up, beginning with its “Putting Challenge” on June 15 at Birdwood and its First Tee Invitational tournament at Farmington this fall. Meanwhile, the organization is conducting its annual “Great American Golf Trip Raffle,” the winner getting a trip for four to Pebble Beach or Pinehurst for golf or $10,000. Tickets are $100 each (see the aforementioned ad for more information).