TAMPA — Golf is 6-year-old Gigi Graham’s favorite sport.
“The thing I like best about golf is that I get to meet new friends,” she said.
Gigi is able to do both as a member of the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA’s First Tee of Tampa Bay program. She regularly meets up with like-minded kids ages 5 through 18 at Rogers Park golf course, where she’s not only learning about the game of golf but also learning life skills such as how to meet new people, ways to show respect for others, being honest and setting goals for herself.
She recently had a chance to put some of First Tee’s core values to the test and improve her golfing prowess when she and about 30 others in the program met up at the Claw at USF for a free junior golf clinic with members of the University of South Florida’s women’s golf team.
USF’s women’s golf head coach Marci Kornegay, an LPGA Class A teaching professional, welcomed them with a pep talk and gave them a tour of the facility. Afterward, the boys and girls headed out to the course for an hour’s worth of drills — plus some one-on-one instruction time — with members of the women’s golf team.
Kornegay, who grew up in Savannah, Georgia, and graduated from the University of Mississippi, was 12 years old when she took up the game. She remembers how much there was to learn about golf, including its proper etiquette.
“These kids have the chance to share a day in the life of a college golfer and use the skills they learn to pursue golf as a lifelong experience,” she said. “I want to make sure our team is a good resource for them.”
Khaliah Gilbert, 13, stood in a doorway of the clubhouse, waiting for a light rain to subside so she and her fellow First Tee buddies could go to the driving range.
“I hope it’s going to be fun,” she said. “It’s exciting because we get to meet USF students and learn how to improve our golfing skills.”
Standing nearby was Yale University graduate Taylor Babcock, the assistant women’s golf coach at USF.
“I actually was a volunteer with First Tee in Miami and I saw how much fun it was for the kids and that it was an environment that really made a positive impact in their lives and in their game of golf,” she said.
Babcock also used the time provided by the rain delay to give some kids pointers on putting during a short session in a hallway of the clubhouse.
Mackenzie Mack, the First Tee of Tampa Bay program director, was all smiles as she watched the kids take advice from the USF women golfers and put into practice what they had learned.
Her career as an LPGA golf professional stems from her involvement in First Tee in Las Vegas during her youth. In fact, she attended Indiana University with the help of a First Tee scholarship.
“This is great for the kids because this is what they aspire to do — go to college and continue to play the game of golf,” Mack said.
The youngsters, she added, were pumped up about their meet-up with USF golfers weeks in advance of the actual happening.
“They were excited to see the players and to see what college life is like,” Mack said. “They are really in awe.”
To top off the day’s experience, the kids were invited to attend a USF men’s basketball game at the Sun Dome.
Joyce McKenzie can be reached at [email protected]