In 1997, on a crisp November morning in New York’s Central Park, golf enthusiast and former President George H.W. Bush christened a new initiative in golf: The First Tee program.
“I believe it will expand interest in the game,” said honorary chairman Bush, the 41st president, who stood alongside eight-time major champion Tom Watson and PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem that day.
“But more important for me than that is lifting up the life of one kid, and we’ll be lifting up the lives of a lot of kids with this program.”
Since that time, The First Tee claims to have influenced the lives of 6.5 million youngsters. It lists 1,200 program locations, 3,900 active coaches and 24,000 volunteers.
And now, 21 years later, it has “one kid” to put on the poster. When Scott Langley finished a final-round 65 and rallied to capture the Web.com Tour’s Panama Championship on Feb. 4, he became the first of the First Tee graduates to win a PGA Tour-affiliated championship.
Certainly, the 28-year-old Langley had a number of reasons to be delighted with the victory at Panama Golf Club. He became the first player in tournament history to start the week with an above-par round (71) and go on to win. His six-shot comeback on the final day also set a tournament record.
© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Scott Langley graduates from The First Tee to the winner’s circle on the Web.com Tour.
Moreover, the result was a giant leap toward getting a seat back on the PGA Tour bus. Langley now sits fourth on the Web.com money list. At season’s end, the top 25 will earn PGA Tour playing status for 2018-19. Langley lost his PGA Tour card after the 2015-16 season.
All that said, Langley didn’t grow up with a country-club spoon in his mouth. He had a range pass and, along with younger brother Nick, spent countless hours battering balls at the Family Golf and Learning Center in St. Louis.
“We couldn’t get enough,” said Scott, who went on to star at the University of Illinois, capturing the 2010 NCAA individual championship as a junior. Nick Langley, who played golf for Missouri State, manages an Enterprise Rent-A-Car branch in Manhattan, Kan.
Make no mistake. For Scott Langley, the significance of being a bell ringer for The First Tee is not lost.
“The First Tee has influenced my career in an extremely positive way,” said Langley, who was born in Barrington, Ill., but moved to suburban St. Louis as a 1-year-old.
“While I had been introduced to golf before I participated in The First Tee, the program revealed to me the many values that are inherent in the game.”
We’re not talking shot values here, or short-game lessons. We’re talking life experiences.
“The First Tee gave me opportunities to learn about confidence, to build and practice it during different programs we would do both locally and nationally, at places like The First Tee Open at Pebble Beach,” Langley said.
“The qualifying process alone for Pebble Beach involved golf competitions and sit-down interviews with a panel of many accomplished business people. As a 15-year-old, these are experiences you don’t often find yourself in. But The First Tee put me in those situations and gave me the skills to develop real confidence on and off the golf course through those moments.”
A low-go on Sunday, a trophy in his 155th PGA Tour-sanctioned start – 40th start on the Web.com Tour – has done wonders to reaffirm that confidence. If you’ll recall, Langley had a propitious debut on the PGA Tour. He was tied for the lead after three rounds of the 2013 Sony Open before finishing third. He got a marker for $324,800 and was on his way.
The next season, he earned more than $1.15 million and finished 77th in the FedEx Cup standings. The PGA Tour gig seemed easy.
But by the end of 2016, he was 167th in the FedEx Cup rankings and no longer PGA Tour-qualified. It took three rounds in the 60s at the Web.com Tour Championship last October to secure his place on the auxiliary circuit this season.
“I’ve definitely had my share of ups and downs; that’s the way this game can be,” said Langley, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife, Kristy, and 3-year-old daughter, Kennedy. “But a win is very gratifying because I feel like these struggles I’ve been through have definitely taught me a lot of good things that I might not have learned otherwise.”
They are lessons he is eager to put into practice. Langley took quality time off to be with his family before the schedule reboots this week with the El Bosque Mexico Championship (tee times). Meanwhile, when, not if, Langley returns to the PGA Tour big show, he’ll be a different man.
“Going through the struggles at times the last couple of years has given me a humility and an appreciation for the opportunity to play golf at a high level that I haven’t always necessarily had,” Langley said. “It’s taught me how to use my time well with being a husband, dad and a pro golfer. I’ve learned to put an equal emphasis on quality as much as quantity when I work.
“I’ve experienced things over the past six years as a pro that you can’t learn, aside from simply going through them. Inevitably, these things will help me compete at the highest level I can. I’m excited for all the opportunities that lie ahead. I’m going to keep my head down and keep digging in.”
They are sage words, spoken like a guy who fights through adversity, like a guy with confidence … like a kid from The First Tee program.
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @WWDOD