Jim Harris: Stealing From Kids at the First Tee; What Idiots Do This?

On recent Saturday night, somebody snuck his or their way across the expansive acreage of the First Tee of Central Arkansas from Western Hills Boulevard, slipped into the maintenance shed, and made off with several thousand dollars worth of equipment.

For example, these clowns made their way back out of the maintenance area and back across the golf holes and back onto a city street in this late-night rip-off driving off in the First Tee’s practice ball “picker,” the vehicle that gathers up all those driving range balls when golfers finish practicing.

What does someone do with a range picker away from a golf course? Do you roll up to a pawn shop and ask, “Hey, I have this green contraption here with a motor and wheels; how about $100 for it?”

Seriously, they stole a range picker?

They also made off with various other necessities for a golf course operation from a public course that really can’t afford to buy replacement. Insurance may cover some of the theft, but plenty more goes uncovered.

Now, it’s about this point in the story that the average person who knows little about First Tee’s operation — except for how it started — will say, “Who cares? The Stephens family will take care of it.”

The wealthy heirs of late financier Jack Stephens, who donated millions to help fund First Tee on a national basis as well as build the Little Rock First Tee facility, have been there for the local establishment as it tried to find its way among the many charities in Arkansas. Warren and Harriet Stephens and the family were thanked for 10 years of dedication to this First Tee a couple of years ago in an appearance by former president George W. Bush and national First Tee director Joe Louis Barrow.

At that point, it was known among the First Tee board that the Stephens family hoped the academy would begin operating solely on its own without an end-of-season check to cover the expenses.

The First Tee was a fabulous gift from the Stephenses more than a decade ago, but at some point we as Little Rock citizens and golfers must make it a success.

Slowly but surely, through the efforts of executive director Cory Biggs and others, the First Tee is close to making it on its own. It still requires further growth in memberships (both for the young people participating in the First Tee classes as well as adults who enjoy the courses), donations, and participation in two major fund-raising events that bookend the golf season — the annual Day at the Masters in early April and the First Tee Classic in late October.

And then some idiots come in and rip the place off. Coincidentally, this break-in came almost to the day of another major theft a year earlier.

Forgive me, readers, but I imagine you sense I feel a personal stake in this. I have felt an affinity to First Tee and what it stands for since it opened here in 2002, about the time my son was born. He’s enjoyed all that First Tee offers kids in Little Rock for 11 years. I pay for his membership ($200 a year) as well as a “senior” annual membership ($425 a year or $40 a month in First Tee’s new pay-by-the-month plan) so that we can hit practice balls or play together.

I went a step further on the volunteer front recently, offering two hours of time twice a week to the maintenance crew to handle some manual labor that would allow the regular, paid maintenance guys to devote those hours to the more important work of keeping the course green and the greens and fairways cut.

So, yes, when I heard that burglars had hit the maintenance building again, I was incensed.

The game of golf at First Tee is not just about putting a little white ball into a little hole. I know how hard these people are working to make golf available to kids in families of all incomes. These folks not only teach golf, they pass along life lessons in the same way Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts do — developing great citizens with strong character when they become adults.

Partly because it was built so nicely by the Stephens largesse, some people have viewed First Tee as an elitist place for country club kids to play. And just the same, some of the well-to-do families have thought of First Tee as geared only to more impoverished families in the area. In truth, its charter directed the First Tee to focus first on impoverished families, minorities, children with disabilities, children of military families and girls. And it does that.

To me, though, First Tee can be better described as a perfect place for the family, any family, no matter the financial status, were bonds between parent and child, or brother and sister, can be better formed.

A full-size nine-hole course with easily some of the best nine holes anywhere in Arkansas offer a quick getaway for any age player at a ridiculously low greens fee. A nine-hole par-3 course presents a great learning facility for the smallest of golfers as well as a superb practice area for the adult player to hone the short game.

More than 2,000 children are participating in a range of First Tee offerings, from camps to daily classes. There is still plenty of opportunity for golfers of all ages to play there. Area schools and groups such as the Boys and Girls Clubs are incorporating programs with First Tee, but it continues to be a secret to many of the city’s 25-to-85-year-old golfers. The facility now boasts 10 golf carts; Biggs and the staff would gladly take more if anyone wished to donate.

Over the past 11 years, local companies have stepped up to help in various ways, and the First Tee folks are greatly appreciative. For example, Kaufman Lumber recently donated some much-needed 10-gallon water jugs to replace some old broken ones to keep everyone hydrated especially during this hot days.

If volunteering time to help First Tee doesn’t fit one’s schedule, a donation of in-kind goods and services would help: items as simple as toilet paper, Solo cups, paper plates, stamps, paper towels or copy paper would enable the staff to direct some of the tight budget toward other educational areas.

Call Cory Biggs at 501-562-4653 to find out how you could help First Tee, or visit with him about the affordable membership plans the First Tee offers. Get your kids involved; or get into the great game yourself. Or just tell him you too are pissed as hell to find out the place was robbed recently.

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