HARTFORD, Conn. – From rather humbling beginnings, The First Tee of Connecticut has become one of the greatest success stories in the history of the state.
Only 18 youngsters participated in the inaugural Mayor Mike’s golf program at Goodwin Park Golf Course in Hartford in 1999, but 71,238 kids aged 5 to 17 took part at 17 sites or as part of program partners throughout the state during its 20th anniversary last year. Ted May, whose father Ed was a co-founder of the 1952 Insurance City Open at Wethersfield Country Club that has morphed into the Travelers Championship, started The First Tee of Hartford in 1995 with a “clubs for kids” program with former Mayor Mike Peters and program director Dan Malarney, who found sites and created customers while working out of the back of his pickup truck.
In 2004, May helped expand the program into a statewide organization with the Connecticut State Golf Association’s Connecticut Golf Foundation and hired 1970 Greater Hartford Open chairman Bruce Wilson as its first executive director with the main responsibility of raising funds for the project. When the initial TFTCT board of directors met at the new David and Geri Epstein Learning Center at the north end of TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, home of the Travelers Championship, May was the chairman presiding over 20 people. May, a longtime mainstay of the PGA Tour’s annual stop in the state elected to the Connecticut Golf Hall of Fame in 2014, was a driving force behind what had become the only First Tee facility in the world with a practice range, learning links and learning center in the same locale.
“It’s a thrill to see the center open,” May, a major partner in the financial consulting firm of May, Bonee and Walsh in Glastonbury, said at the time. “I think it really demonstrates how solid The First Tee of Connecticut is and what we’ve accomplished, and the real satisfaction is the look that you see on the faces of the kids and their parents when they come here for the first time. It’s like, ‘Wow, this place looks great.’ To see it on the weekend when the kids are on the putting green, the learning links, the practice tee, inside and outside, is so great. And we had a full slate of camps this summer even without the building open.”
The one-of-a-kind, three-pronged facility grew out of a gravel pit, and TFTCT reached unprecedented heights thanks to terrific teamwork between The First Tee, the Travelers Championship, the PGA Tour, Northeast Utilities and hundreds of volunteers who led the financial charge.
“We got lucky along the way, but we all did it for the right reasons,” May said. “We have a tremendous facility for golf and life skills for kids of all backgrounds. When someone says golf is more than a game, this symbolizes it. You can talk to people about what The First Tee is, but now they can see a solid example of what The First Tee has for resources and what it can bring to kids around the whole state. And it never would have happened unless people bought into The First Tee and what it’s all about and wanted to be a part of it. We couldn’t have built what we built without supporters of the construction projects like landscaping, heating and air conditioning.”
Former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem thought so much of what the program accomplished so quickly that he told May that it should become part of the First Tee’s national program. May & Co. branched out into other communities and then merged with the Connecticut Golf Foundation to become an umbrella organization that carried the state’s First Tee banner. In 2002, Northeast Utilities and Connecticut Light and Power donated about 100 acres of land north of TPC River Highlands for $1 and a nominal lease plan with the stipulation that it be used more than just the week the PGA Tour made its annual visit for Connecticut’s largest sporting event.
“They wanted something that had a benefit to the community year-round, and that’s when we proposed The First Tee move (to Cromwell),” May said.
Former GHO honorary chairman Karl Krapek and his family became a national First Tee trustee and donated $500,000 for what became a four-hole learning links with varying distances and pars. The Epsteins of Westport then donated $500,000 on top of their original $1 million, half of which was earmarked for the learning center. The deceased Epsteins, Krapek and John Lundgren were Connecticut’s three national First Tee trustees. The Epsteins’ additional $500,000 donation put TFTCT over the $1 million plateau needed to build the 7,500-square-foot learning center adjacent the 23-acre practice facility that opened in 2008 and the Karl Krapek Family Learning Links, which debuted in 2010, two years before the learning center opened.
“It’s amazing,” Wilson said. “We started with a plain piece of white page that was the Connecticut Golf Foundation, and through a lot of determination through the members of the board, the state golf association and everyone connected with this, the long-term dream came true almost 12 years to the day.”
Longtime Hartford Golf Club pro Gary Reynolds was a founding director and works with TFTCT with his wife, Mim, who also worked at Hartford GC.
“I loved coaching children the magic of the game,” Reynolds said. “I always emphasized the codes of behavior within the game to all the juniors that crossed my path. I looked for anywhere I could get involved, so when I heard of the CSGA junior clinic being conducted at Goodwin Park, I volunteered like other Connecticut Section PGA pros. When Ted, Paul Mersereau and others created the relationship with the Connecticut Golf Foundation, I felt we had a real chance for success.
“The result of that alliance was the expansion to The First Tee of Connecticut, and eventually Ted’s brilliant concept of a partnership at TPC River Highlands made the dream of an actual site a real possibility. Several years of fundraising and hundreds of meetings resulted in our great learning center. Upon my retirement in 2008, I had more time to devote to my passion to use golf as a vehicle of improve peoples’ lives. With Mim’s steadfast help, we were able to hit the ground with the many organizations that we previously helped from afar with fundraising.
“The First Tee was certainly one of the most important places we put our efforts. The idea of legacy giving is a very powerful tool to ensure The First Tee’s funding needs well beyond annual appeals. Success in this area will affect an entire generation of people. It ensures our passion for kids will be felt far into the future. It is a very easy process no matter how large or small the bequests and can have decided tax advantages under present law.”
TFTCT assumed responsibility for Fairfield Country in 2018, making it truly a statewide organization that focuses on offering the programming and golf to youngsters who might not otherwise have an opportunity. In an effort to continue that focus, the non-profit TFTCT created an outreach program in New Haven to enhance partnerships in that area and did that last year.
The two-story learning center features a learning lounge with computers; two hitting bays next to a high-definition Trackman 4 simulator with more than 50 courses, including Pebble Beach Golf Links in California and St. Andrews in Scotland, all surrounded by netting; a putting green with five pins; a kitchenette and large-screen HDTV; offices for instructors with a projector, intercom system and screen for videos; storage areas; administrative offices; and a patio overlooking the practice range and learning course that includes a tee with artificial turf where people can watch exhibitions or participate in long drive and/or closest-to-the-pin contests to fairways and greens on the learning course. The netting is removable so a couple could have a wedding or organizations can have meetings or a lecture.
TFTCT teaches golf and nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment. It has 34 program partners that are groups that TFTCT works with to introduce its program, and 10 people have made legacy gifts from their estates. TFTCT raised nearly $1 million from 1,322 donors in 2019 but isn’t likely to reach that total this year because some events have already been postponed canceled due to COVID-19.
“I’m incredibly proud of the work we are doing at First Tee of Connecticut,” executive director Mark Moriarty said. “The ability to positively impact over 71,000 young people takes a community of coaches, board members, volunteers and passionate people. I hope that when we celebrate our 40th anniversary we can continue telling the stories of our amazing alumni and that we are impacting even more young people across Connecticut through the game of golf.”
TFTCT relies on the support of the community to offer affordable programs for the youngsters they serve. If anyone is interested in making a donation, a gift of $50 allows a youngster to attend a seven-week program in Hartford, New Haven or Waterbury for free.