From The First Tee to the PGA TOUR: Amazing journey

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July 02, 2012
Joe Suarez, PGA TOUR

My name is Joe Suarez and I am a recent graduate of Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. with a BA in Communication Studies and a minor in Political Science. I was also a student-athlete as a member of CNU's men's golf program. With the upcoming Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach on July 6-8, I would like to share my journey as a participant in the 2004 inaugural The First Tee Open to my current position as PGA TOUR intern.

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At the age of 9, I liked recess. I enjoyed football. I liked the San Francisco 49ers, and my favorite athlete was Jerry Rice. However, I was a little guy, and I did not see a Heisman Trophy in the future. Though I did not live out my childhood dream of playing in the Super Bowl, I was introduced to a sport that brought character building experiences, as well as athletic development. I was introduced to a sport that taught me about patience, hard work, and perseverance -- I was introduced to golf.

I was 15 years old heading into my freshman year of high school playing one of the most renowned courses in the world -- Pebble Beach Golf Links -- for free. Yes, you read that correctly, I was playing Pebble Beach for free of charge. To put the icing on the cake, I was playing this course as part of a Champions Tour event with some of the many living legends that have aided in shaping the game of golf to where it is today.

I know what some of you are thinking, "Are you sure you were not dreaming?" "You meant you played it in a video game right?" The answer is no. I was granted the opportunity due to an amazing organization: The First Tee.

Before heading out west from my hometown of Richmond, Va., I had to qualify from a First Tee Participant Selection Process at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan. There, I met 80 other First Tee participants from First Tee Chapters around the nation to compete for 20 spots to play in The First Tee Open held over Labor Day weekend in September.

The qualifier at Kansas State was more than just the ability to post low scores enough to qualify. Along with a 36-hole tournament on KSU's gruesome Colbert Hills Golf Course, my fellow First Tee participants and I were also evaluated on decorum on and off the golf course, a series of interviews, and a personal essay describing the impact of The First Tee on our lives.

After surviving the selection process, my excitement for The First Tee Open elevated. Prior to the event, I would play EA Sports Tiger Woods 2004 on my computer to give me a visual of what Pebble Beach would be like. Still, not even the video game could capture the elegance of the course.

Each junior golfer at The First Tee Open at Pebble Beach was paired with a Champions Tour player and two amateurs. I had the opportunity to play with 2003 Senior PGA Champion John Jacobs.

Mr. Jacobs was an entertaining man on the course. I will always remember Mr. Jacobs and his love of cigars. As we were walking down the first fairway after our first shots of the tournament, one of the first life lessons Mr. Jacobs said to me as he was puffing on his cigar was, "Kid, don't ever start smoking."

Throughout the tournament, Mr. Jacobs gave me tips and advice on course management and handling pressure in a professional tournament. Even his caddie offered to help. Following the first round, his caddie provided instruction at the driving range to try and straighten out a flaw in my swing. His instruction paid off, as I holed a shot from 137 yards for eagle on the par-5 18th in the second round (However, it was not on Pebble Beach. In 2004, the other course we played along with Pebble Beach was The Bayonet Golf Course).

The tournament was filled with more advice and anecdotes from some of the world's greatest golfers. The legendary Gary Player recited a piece of knowledge that still sticks with me today. After signing a pin flag for me, Mr. Player pointed at his abdominal muscles and said, "Young man, if you want to hit the ball further. Work on strengthening these."

Mr. Player, I continue to work on abs of steel.

Although we did not make the cut as a team, as a gift at the end of the second round, Mr. Jacobs gave me a couple dozen of Titleist Pro V1x golf balls and his contact information to keep in touch.

My experience playing Pebble Beach alongside a professional golfer would not have been possible without The First Tee. Growing up as a junior golfer, my family was not a member of a country club. Other than getting a chance to play in The First Tee Open, The First Tee facilities in Richmond and Chesterfield provided areas for me to practice and numerous opportunities to further enhance my playing ability.

Not only did I utilize The First Tee's practice facilities, but also the life lessons and leadership skills I was taught through participating in The First Tee program, such as the Nine Core Values (honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment).

Looking back, it is interesting how being a former participant of The First Tee has created a snowball-like effect leading into my internship with the Champions Tour in Tournament Business Affairs. As an intern, learning about what goes on to run this year's Nature Valley First Tee Open gives me a different perspective of the tournament from when I was a junior player.

I still enjoy football (I would like to say I am a pretty good fantasy football manager), and Jerry Rice is still one of the greatest athletes to play in the world of sports. However, at 23, I have an appreciation and love for golf -- the sport that gave me an opportunity to play at the collegiate level, give back to my community, and develop skills to carry me on in my career path.

I am certainly blessed to have been a part of The First Tee and experience one of the most treasured stops on the Champions Tour.

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