Maybe it’s a beginner heading out on a three-hole loop. Or a determined 15-year-old named Jackie Freibert who has dreams of earning a college golf scholarship playing all 18.
It doesn’t matter what the kids shoot. All that matters is that they want to play golf. And if they do, and are 18 years old or younger, there are five courses in the Charleston, South Carolina area that will let them play for free thanks to the “Swing It Forward CHS” program.
Yes, you read that right. For free. No greens fee. Nada. No money crosses hands when the kid walks and carries his or her clubs.
Think about that for a minute. Everyone knows that golf can be a prohibitively expensive sport. But First Tee-Greater Charleston has created a program that breaks down that barrier.
So far, more than 550 youngsters have taken advantage of “Swing It Forward” since the initiative was launched in January. And Bucky Dudley, executive director of First Tee-Greater Charleston, would love to see the number continue to grow.
“We’re just super excited for more people to find out and for families to think, you know, gosh,
Swing It Forward’ -- like A.) cool name and then B.) Why not, let's go play a hole or two, right?” he says.
“Whereas normally it'd be like, oh no, you won't play nine holes and it costs too much, we're not going to do it. Now, it's like, why not go try?”
The way the program works is simple. Kids call one of the five participating courses -- Berkeley Country Club, Charleston Municipal, Patriots Point Links, Wescott Golf Club and Wrenwoods Golf Course --
on the day they want to play and see what tee times are available.
No pre-registration or enrollment is required. Kids don’t even have to be members of First Tee-Greater Charleston. And while the vast majority of the participants live in Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties, Dudley says young visitors to the area wouldn’t be turned away.
“You’ve heard about it, come in and say, Hey, I want to ‘Swing It Forward’” he says. “And the courses are going to say, heck, yeah, how about this time?’”
Once a tee time has been secured, the kids must go to the pro shop and sign in. Loaner clubs are available at each course if the child doesn’t have any of their own. There’s no mandatory skill level, either, although the pros will steer kids toward appropriate experiences to maximize their success.
“What we've gotten most excited about is seeing the kids who sign in and say, I'm a beginner and I played three holes, or I played two holes or one hole,” says Ben Grandy, a First Tee-Greater Charleston directory who works closely with the program.
“Just knowing that they're getting out there and giving it a try.”
Other kids, like Freibert, use the “Swing It Forward” initiative almost daily. Introduced to the game by a neighbor, she joined First Tee-Greater Charleston at the age of 10. She’s an Eagle level participant now who plays on the golf team at Oceanside Collegiate Academy.
“When I really started to get serious with golf it was about two years, not even two years ago, I started taking lessons and I started golfing competitively,” Freibert says. “... And I thought the only way that I can get better is just to go out and practice and play and compete more.”
Freibert, who was headed to the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island on Tuesday to watch a couple of her favorite golfers, Rory McIlroy, and Justin Thomas practice, says the “Swing It Forward” program has helped her build a community in the game.
“It helps me get more connections and it helps me learn a little bit more of like, as you're getting older, what you're going to be doing and what I have to do to get there as far as goals wise,” she says. “It’s a great way to meet new people and get those kinds of connections, I think.”
Dudley says a study by the National Golf Foundation found that if you can get a person to play 10 rounds, there’s an 87 percent chance they’ll become a lifetime golfer. While kids like Freibert are already hooked, he thinks the “Swing It Forward” program can break down the barriers of cost and access so others can learn to enjoy the game.
“Hopefully, we will start to pick up more and more golf courses that say, Holy cow, man, we're missing the boat,” Dudley says, the passion evident in his voice. “We want to be involved too because you're going to start to see more families get involved. ...
“And that's infectious and contagious and pretty soon facilities that may have not had a lot of kids or families are now storming with them. And parents are starting to pick up the game because their kids are picking it up and they want to have something they can do together.”
The “Swing It Forward” program was made possible by the Young Ambassadors Council of First Tee-Greater Charleston. The YAC is a group of area businessmen and businesswomen who help raise funds for the organization – primarily through its 100-Hole Hike Golf Marathon.
Several years ago, the YAC raised enough money for the First Tee to purchase a much-needed 15-seat passenger van. The next time the group discussed more barriers to success that needed to be broken, scholarships and trained coaches and mentors were some of the suggestions.
“And then also this kind of zany idea that let's make golf affordable – as in the way of free,” Dudley chuckled.
Dudley, a long-time PGA of America pro, took the idea and ran with it. He called five of his peers and suggested a solution for that inventory of daily tee times that went unused. The pros then took the leap of faith that became “Swing It Forward.”
“I said, hey, let's do this,” Dudley says. “I remember back to my days as a PGA pro and day-of space available play was really pretty easy. We would almost sell it for anything we could because just like an airline seat, once that plane takes off you might as well have gotten $5 for it, right?
“And so that was my sales pitch. I said, hey, if the kids book on day of play, we're not going to book any tee times that are excluding patrons that are paying high rates. We're just going to be given some off tee times to some kids.
“And we worked out kind of a small, subsidized fee that we would pay each golf course and ‘Swing It Forward’ was born.”