Your spouse has been playing golf for 30 years. Your daughter was introduced to the game last year. Your son has never picked up a club in his life. You — well, you could always get better. Now, try planning a golf getaway. Where do you go?

The traditional golfing meccas — Florida, California, Michigan, Arizona — all offer stunning regulation and championship-caliber courses; but unless you and everyone in your family golf often, they may not be for you. Research by the National Golf Foundation has shown that the one of the reasons that golfers quit the game, or barely get started, is the game’s high level of difficulty. Yet only 12 percent of the nation’s 27.3 million adult golfers indicated they took at least one golf lesson in 2004. And these people tend to have the money for them, with an annual household income of over $100,000.

One option is The First Tee, a nonprofit organization dedicated to affecting the lives of young people. The First Tee provides learning facilities and educational programs that promote character development and life-enhancing values through the game of golf. You can find The First Tee golf facilities in over 250 locations throughout the U.S. and five internationally.

“When you tee up at a regulation course, you’re either having a great time — or you’re having some issues,” says Hugh Smith, executive director of The First Tee Phoenix. “Golf is not the easiest sport, and we make golfing fun.”

In fact, The First Tee makes golf a central focus for kids. The First Tee of Phoenix has a par-three, nine-hole golf course and programming for kids to learn the game. And like many of The First Tee facilities, the Phoenix course, located near South Mountain, is also open to the public for an unheard-of $5 per round, $20 for a family of four.

The First Tee was established in 1997 with the support of five of the world’s leading golf organizations: the Augusta National Golf Club (annual home of The Masters), Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), PGA of America, PGA TOUR, and the United States Golf Association (USGA). Their influence has helped The First Tee garner the support of hundreds of corporations, individuals and organizations that provide donations, land, gifts and services to The First Tee. Since 2000, The First Tee has reached more than 675,000 young people and expects to reach more than three million by the end of 2010.

More Than Just the Game

The educational programs offered by The First Tee consist of the Life Skills Experience™. This program was created by a team of experts in the field of youth development to teach young people how to transfer the inherent values of golf into their daily lives. The First Tee has established Nine Core Values™; honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment, which are seamlessly incorporated into the Life Skills Experience. With the help of trained coaches, participants learn the importance of self-management, goal-setting, mentoring and effective conflict resolution.

A 2003 study conducted by the University of Florida and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas evaluated the impact of the Life Skills Experience. Multiple measures of research revealed that over 74 percent of the parents whose children participated in the program observed improvements in their child’s communication skills, confidence and display of responsibility. More than half of the parents reported the Life Skills Experience had a positive impact on their child’s school grades and social abilities.

The First Tee National School Program™ was recently created to teach elementary school students basic golf skills during their physical education classes.  The curriculum is based on the standards set by the National Association of Sport and Physical Education. It emphasizes character education through an introduction to The First Tee Nine Core Values. Local leadership teams help link the children to a nearby Chapter of The First Tee or junior golf program to continue their interest in the game. The First Tee National School Program (www.thefirstteensp.org) has reached more than 400,000 students in over 900 elementary schools across the country.

For All Ages

The First Tee facilities are not just for kids; they also make for practice rounds, or just an enjoyable day on the course, for all skill levels. “This is a great in-between course,” says Smith. “It’s a great little something to do, hang out, play a quick nine holes. A couple of pros play here. It’s a challenging course, but it’s not something that keeps you out here all day. It’s a destination for beginning golfers and kids.”

The kids range from seven through 17, and primarily around 10 to 13, and Smith says that they participate in the programming offered almost daily. And some, Smith says, just come to “hang out.” But the Phoenix course, ranging from 50-yard to 110-yard holes, is clearly for all ages. “It’s a place where people can come to kind of hone their skills, and work on their short game,” Smith says. “Our instructors are available in addition for private instruction. Once they’re comfortable with their short game, they can transition to a full course.” Like many of The First Tee facilities, The First Tee Phoenix is located within minutes of several prestigious courses.

Going Big-Time

Over the Labor Day weekend, 78 outstanding juniors will get the opportunity to play with Champions Tour players in the Wal-Mart First Tee Open at Pebble Beach. Legendary players like Tom Watson, Hale Irwin and Craig Stadler each pair up with a junior who demonstrated talent and leadership in his or her quest to become a part of this tournament. Tickets are available at www.thefirstteeopen.com.

Several participants in the annual tournament have gone on to become Scholars of The First Tee. Some 28 colleges and universities provide leadership scholarships to qualified participants through The First Tee Scholars Program. Many of The First Tee Scholars have spoken in front of members of Congress and as guest speakers at various fund-raising events.

For the golfing family, or for those who would like to start golfing, The First Tee can fit naturally into a golf vacation plan in nearly any U.S. location. “If people are coming for a vacation, for a convention, or to visit the downtown area where there’s something going on, we are close to that,” Smith says. “It’s a win-win for kids, beginning golfers, and for the family.”

For more information, visit www.thefirsttee.org.