BELOIT - Steve Ferger says he often runs into golfers whose only regret about the sport is that they didn't pick up a club much earlier in life.
Many are Beloit Memorial High School alums.
"They always say, why didn't you get me into this sooner?" the former BMHS athletic director and golf coach said. "I always tell them that I tried."
He's still trying, not only to have Beloit youngsters start playing the game of golf, but also experience all the advantages that go along with it.
He isn't alone. One of those former BMHS athletes he tried to sway toward golf, Wayne Ludlum, was part of a foursome on Monday that met with Beloit Memorial Assistant Superintendent Anthony Bonds to receive confirmation The First Tee Golf Program would be included in the School District of Beloit's elementary and intermediate school physical education curriculum this coming school year.
Ludlum is president and co-founder of Stellé Audio with is wife and CEO Anna Perelman, He said while Ferger always preached the game of golf to him, he sided with basketball. Later in life, he embraced the links and recently hired Steve Stricker to be a brand ambassador for his company.
While he now lives in California, Ludlum wanted to do give something back to his hometown. He spoke with his golf-loving aunt, Susan Ludlum, and they agreed bringing The First Tee to Beloit would be a great choice. He is funding the program for its first two years in Beloit.
"I think the timing is right and there is a real window of opportunity here," Ludlum said. "Everyone has been incredibly supportive and we can have a lot of fun. I think Steve (Stricker) will play a big part when we officially kick this off in September."
On Monday, Ferger, Ludlum and his aunt were joined by A.J. Kriha, the Program Director of The First Tee of South Central Wisconsin.
The intent of The First Tee isn't to produce successors to Wisconsin pros Stricker, Jerry Kelly, Andy North and Sherri Steinhauer, who incidentally are all solid supporters of the program. The First Tee tries to impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices - using golf as the hook.
First Tee was founded in 1997 as a partnership among the PGA, the LGPA, the Masters Tournament and the USGA. It reaches more than 4 million youngsters annually.
"Eighteen schools in Madison have it as part of their curriculum," Kriha said. "All the Wisconsin Rapids school have it."
Kriha said that the program initially introduces the sport of golf, but in a subtle way, incorporating it with other sports.
"We mix in baseball, football, soccer," he said. "The layout is set up like a baseball diamond and a lot of the equipment is brightly-colored, durable plastic. You're swinging a club at a velcro-covered ball. It's fast-paced and it really does focus on motor skills around the game of golf. But kids just see it as running around and having fun."
While actually teeing up balls and trying to hit a drive down a fairway comes later, Kriha said it's important to start character-building early, in elementary schools. It's during the after-school portion of the program that youngsters are taught nine core values, which include respect, honesty and confidence.
Kriha said The First Tee in Madison can offer a good blueprint for success.
"Our program model is really three-tiered," he said. "There's the school and the after-school programs. Then the second tier is the green-grass facilities, the summer programs and summer schools. The third tier is high school golf, internships and career exploration in golf.
"For our summer programs in Madison we train more than 50 mentors who go out to each course and do 45-minute lessons," Kriha said. "Then the kids actually get to play. Many First Tee programs are lesson-based only. But we give our lessons, talk about our core value of the day and then they go as a foursome with their mentor who reinforces the lessons and talks to them throughout the round. Golf can be frustrating and they help keep the positivity flowing. Those mentors are with those same kids for 10 weeks. They establish relationships. They try to build up a tool box for those kids so that they can use sound judgment."
In the long run, that's way important than possessing an accurate putter.
"I've been talking about how great golf is all my life," Ferger said. "But it's not that you have to get really good at it to appreciate it. It's enjoying the people around you. You don't meet too many bad people on a golf course."
Ferger said introducing The First Tee in schools will help build the sport and open up more opportunities for kids.
"We have some junior programs now, but we want to bring everything together," Ferger said. "Krueger-Haskell (Golf Course) is on board and The Beloit Club, too. It's just too bad we don't have a practice facility kids could use now, but I think that if this takes off and we can find a suitable place the city owns, the land would be there for us to develop."