The First Tee: October 2020, Caroline Gilreath

The First Tee is an international youth development organization that introduces the game of golf to many young people, some of whom may not have any other exposure to it. At the same time First Tee programs like the one here in Roanoke help instill values like integrity, respect and perseverance – the latter recalls that Mark Twain once called golf “a good walk spoiled.”

The First Tee of Roanoke Valley is based near Westside Elementary School in northwest Roanoke. The Scott Robertson Memorial Junior Golf Academy, home of The First Tee program , includes a clubhouse, a driving range, a synthetic turf putting green and a practice bunker area. The prestigious Robertson tournament (held annually every spring at Roanoke Country Club right next door) attracts some of the best young amateur golfers nationally and even internationally, with proceeds benefitting the local First Tee program.

There are about 150 chapters nationwide. Jennifer Blackwood is executive director for The First Tee of Roanoke Valley, which opened for classes in 2005. She says families from all over the region bring their children (ages 5 to 18) to First Tee to learn the game. Then there are partnerships with area youth service agencies (Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCA, 4H etc.) and local schools, “where our pros go in and teach through [physical education] classes.”

With the school-based programs First Tee strives “to introduce the sport.” Life skills that the game lends itself to are another important component adds Blackwood, including “conversations about honesty, perseverance and respect. Those lessons are built into our golf curriculum.” 

On First Tee the putting green for example while working on stance and distance control, children may also hear about showing respect to golf team members – and to coaches or their family. “No lectures,” promises Blackwood, who says they have seen positive changes in kids – even in reports sent back from parents. An annual parent-child golf tournament is one highlight for the program every year. September’s event at Roanoke Country Club included designated tee times – a first – in the name of COVID social distancing.

Caroline Gilreath has attended classes at The First Tee of Roanoke Valley since age 7. Blackwood says Caroline “worked her way through our program and is currently at the Ace Level (the highest certification) We are very proud of the Gilreath family.” Her 11-year-old brother Carder is also a First Tee participant and yes says Caroline, the matches are very competitive when they play against each other.

Caroline “really didn’t take to the game until I was around 12.” Two years later she was a freshman player on the Patrick Henry High School varsity squad. “Our team is great … it’s a lot of fun.” Now as a 15-year-old sophomore waiting for the scholastic golf season (pushed to early 2021 from this Fall due to pandemic precautions) she’s also looking at possibly playing in college. Being at the First Tee ACE level also means assistance with college planning and the recruitment process already underway for her. 

She’s the only girl on her PH team and while starting each hole “two tees up,” from the boys she sees it as an advantage of sorts – Caroline normally doesn’t play the ladies tees at Roanoke County Club, where the family is a member. During matches she will often be paired off against  the few females at opposing schools, “which is nice.” 

First Tee “core values,” have taught Caroline Gilreath about “respect for everything. They’ve taught me to be a really good person on and off the golf course. I still use everything they taught me today. I’ve [also] expanded my social life because of golf.” 

She finds the outreach to local children via scholastic and afterschool programs “amazing,” and has worked camps, teaching the game to kids from Boys & Girls Clubs for example. “They have so much fun and they would never do it on their own.” 

Caroline recommends First Tee to families considering it for their children: “they give you a great start to golf … and so many good tips you can carry with you the rest of your life.” See more on First Tee at 

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