July 9, 2008–For Joe Kelly, a longtime Las Vegas PGA of America professional who now operates the three Las Vegas golf courses at Golf Summerlin (pictured), giving back to the game of golf has been a lifelong pursuit. Kelly has managed and worked at several Las Vegas golf courses over the last few decades, and during that time has been involved in many big events and causes, but possibly his most rewarding accomplishment was being one of several people who helped create the Southern Nevada Junior Golf Association. Around 1976, Kelly, along with Joe Lepire, Jr., Scott Greer, Tim Webster, Dick Huff, and others, created the organization that focused on offering competitive tournaments for the area's best junior golfers. And over the years, the association produced many college golfers and a few pros, including Las Vegas PGA Tour golfers Robert Gamez, Craig Barlow, and Edward Fryatt, and LPGA Tour pro Stephanie Louden. Now, some 30 years later, Kelly, who took some time away from his volunteer efforts to focus on family and business, is back involved with The First Tee of Southern Nevada, and is very pleased to have come full circle.
The First Tee of Southern Nevada was formed in 2002 when the Southern Nevada Junior Golf Association and the Southern Nevada Inner-City Youth Golf Association merged to unite all facets of junior golf in Southern Nevada. Some viewed the partnership as controversial, but others embraced the potential of having two similar, but different, organizations working together in a positive way that would give all kids in Southern Nevada a chance to play and enjoy the game of golf. And, Kelly says, he has been very impressed with the new entity since being voted in as president in late 2007.
"The main reason I stepped away from helping with junior golf was due to family and business obligations, but I always wanted to keep involved," says Kelly, who despite not being officially involved still continued to donate his courses for junior golf events. "And I thought that now was the perfect opportunity to come back and help the organization continue to evolve. I was impressed with what the program was doing, and I wanted to help ensure that it keeps moving forward."
Kelly says that one of the things he likes is the way that the program allows all kids–not just the best players–to get involved in the game of golf, a focus that the original organization never really had.
"This is where we might have missed an opportunity back when we originally started junior golf, by not focusing on getting new players into the game," says Kelly. "We were always completely focused on the competition and the best players so we didn't actively reach out and promote to get new kids involved. But The First Tee of Southern Nevada is totally the opposite and that is very impressive. The whole program is now opening doors and windows to the game of golf to all kids. It's a tremendous direction to take, and I am stunned at the level of reach the program has."
Kelly says The First Tee of Southern Nevada programs, that include the Danny Gans Junior Golf Academy, a middle school program, open play days, a golf-in-school program, the SNJGA competitive tour, and more, reach about 65,000 kids annually. A core group of staff and volunteers, led by Executive Director Danielle Gladd, work very hard to ensure the success of the program. And longtime Director of Golf Jim Hart and others work very closely with the kids to ensure they grasp the program's 9 core values like honesty, integrity and perseverance. A national study–much of it done by UNLV with the kids of Southern Nevada as the subjects–shows that the youngsters show improvement and growth in many areas including showing and earning respect, earning good grades, etc.
"We are making a positive impact on many lives, and it's very touching and rewarding to see the difference we make by introducing kids to the best in life through the game of golf," says Kelly.
Part of Kelly's goals with the The First Tee of Southern Nevada are to ensure that the competitive program is at a very high level, just like when the original founders started the tour 30 years ago. And Kelly, a member of the Las Vegas Chapter of the PGA of America, is working with other local pros as they offer a competitive tour of their own and also volunteer to offer instruction to members of The First Tee of Southern Nevada. And he obviously will want the program to continue reaching out to kids of every background.
"The First Tee of Southern Nevada can only be as good as the community that supports it, and we can't thank the golf courses, pros, volunteers, parents and others who help make the program a success," says Kelly. "The First Tee is helping to build our future leaders, and it's an honor to be a part of that."
Kelly likened what The First Tee of Southern Nevada is doing to that of the NCAA. The NCAA recently ran ads promoting the huge number of 'pros' that each of the individual sports were turning out. The catch? Those athletes turning 'pro' weren't going on to play sports as professionals, but rather going 'pro' as doctors and scientists, or seeking out other worthwhile professions.
The First Tee of Southern Nevada recently awarded four scholarships to graduating members, each worth $2,000 per year for the next four years. The recipients are now moving on to higher education and taking what they learned in The First Tee of Southern Nevada with them. The new recipients now bring the total to 12 kids receiving $2000 each, annually, for four years.
Editor note: Author Brian Hurlburt is a board member of The First Tee of Southern Nevada.