Young Charleston boy uses The First Tee to overcome Autism

Two years ago, Perry Green, Director of Instruction at The Golf Club at Wescott Plantation, was giving a lesson to a few ladies out at Wescott Plantation. When they arrived to the third hole, they noticed a young boy who was selling golf balls from the back yard of his house. When Perry asked the young boy what he was going to do with the money he gets from selling the golf balls, the young boy shyly said, “I am going to use the money to get some range balls and take golf lessons.” Needless to say, Perry Green bought him out of golf balls that day.

Fast forward to a few months later when Perry is leaving the driving range at Wescott Plantation and runs into Jim Martin and his twelve-year-old son, Ricky. Jim explains that Ricky has been saving his money and wants to take golf lessons. Jim had told his son that he would match Ricky dollar for dollar on the money that he earned selling golf balls. Ricky, with the help of his father, made enough money to purchase a few lesson and range balls.

During his first lesson, Perry remembers Ricky soaking everything up like a sponge. Hold your club like this, stand like this, and keep your head down. He never had to tell him anything twice. During the lesson, he could see Jim Martin down the driving range. Ricky’s dad was obviously emotional watching his son take his first lesson. Perry walked over to him, and the rest of the story came into focus. “Ricky,” his dad explained, “is autistic. He was diagnosed at age three.” Perry learned that Ricky had problems with communicating appropriately, socializing and developing life skills. To take a golf lesson and do well was a breakthrough for Ricky. It was as if golf made things “click” for the young man.

Not long after, Perry introduced Ricky and his father to The First Tee® program (www.thefirsttee.org ), a program developed to introduce kids to the game of golf and teach them life skills and character education as well. Ricky began the program and has soared since he started. You see, it isn’t just golf lessons. The First Tee® program has testing to progress to each level, tests on golf skills, golf knowledge and life skills. When Ricky started, he was shy, quiet and non-communicative with others. Ricky would not look at others in the eye, initiate conversation, or socialize. His dad remembers on family sports outings such as bowling or putt-putt golf, Ricky would cheer against everyone. As he has progressed through the program, he has learned interpersonal skills such as the proper way to introduce himself and how to how to communicate with others. He has also learned about self-management, goal setting, and resiliency skills to help him adapt and overcome challenges. He has also learned about good sportsmanship and complimenting others on shots or putts. Coach Perry and his dad both agree that Ricky has become a new person. He has rapidly worked through The First Tee® program, and now has reached the ‘Eagle’ level. He is only one of three young people in the Charleston area to achieve this status.

As an ‘Eagle’, Ricky has truly soared. He is no longer shy or afraid to communicate with others. He greets you with a firm handshake, looks you in the eye, and says “pleased to meet you,” and he means it. He carries on conversations with well thought-out comments and answers to questions. When asked what it took to get to the ‘Eagle’ status, he explained that to pass into Eagle, he had to hit a number of drives 150 yards or better into the fairway, make certain type of approach shots that usually were between clubs as well as show proficiency in chipping and putting. THEN, he took written tests on the rules of golf and another on life skills. But he isn’t content with Eagle- he wants to be an Ace- and he will most likely attain that goal sooner than later. Ricky very rarely misses any time on the course. He gets home from school at 4:30 pm, and if his parents aren’t available to drive him over to the clubhouse, he puts his golf bag on his back, jumps on his bike, and pedals over to make sure he makes it to his First Tee® program.

Fast forward to today when I caught up with him playing the back nine at Wescott. The young man exudes confidence and a clear passion for a game that frustrates many adults. He has a great swing that he says is his own. “I do what works for me, instead of trying to imitate someone else’s swing,” he told me. He likes Bridgestone and Taylor-Made balls, and he plays with a set of cut down 1977 Ping clubs- the first year they came out- complete with persimmon woods. When asked if he could have any new clubs on the market, he replied with, “I would have to test everything out to find what works best for me.”

Since Ricky has started First Tee®, he has worked at the Nationwide Tour at Daniel Island twice, and while he would like to work the PGA Championship, he is a year too young. While he enjoys watching the Golf Channel, most days you will find him playing the game instead of watching it. He says he likes Phil Mickelson the best, and when asked what course he would like to play, he didn’t pick Pebble Beach or St. Andrews, but rather Bay Hill in Orlando (Arnie, are you reading this?). When he isn’t playing golf, he is an 8th grade student at Oakbrook Middle School and hopes to make the golf team at Fort Dorchester High School next year.

And he shot a 114 today.

Written by:

Karyn Allen and Kasey King