BRANDON — Jimmy Morotti II has been swinging a golf club with his father, James, since he was in diapers.
But never in his wildest dreams did the elder Morotti envision that his only son, at the ripe young age of 15, would be selected to play in this year's Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach.
With his dad as his chaperone, Jimmy boarded a plane to California for what they call the thrill of a lifetime.
The event, played on what is considered one of the world's most beautiful and prestigious golf courses, started Tuesday and concludes Sunday. It pairs First Tee participants with top players from the PGA Champions Tour, and is being aired on the Golf Channel.
Both father and son said they owe it all to the staff and coaches of the First Tee of Tampa Bay, a Tampa YMCA program Jimmy has been a part of since he was 7.
It is an educational program for young people that teaches life skills and core values meant to build character by way of classroom learning sessions and the game of golf. The overall objective is for youngsters to become the very best they can be.
Jimmy, a sophomore in the honors programs at Strawberry Crest High School with an approximate GPA of 3.8 and a 3.3 USGA golf handicap, joined 80 other First Tee participants representing 170 chapters throughout the country.
During the selection process conducted by a national panel of judges, he was chosen from among a field of five finalists in each chapter, equaling a total of 850 contenders.
Moreover, the Brandon resident could likely be the youngest player in the tournament, according to his dad.
"Some of the kids at the First Tee (of Tampa Bay) said he wouldn't be chosen because of his age. They're usually 18 and older," Morotti said.
What makes Jimmy's participation in the tournament even more remarkable is that if it weren't for his involvement in the First Tee program he probably would not be devoted to the game of golf.
"First Tee means everything to me, coming from a lower-income family," he said. "I was provided with the equipment that my family could not afford and I've been able to play at golf courses I would never have been able to play on."
Learning and applying First Tee's character-building principals on both the golf course and in daily life has proved invaluable, Jimmy added.
"During elementary and middle school I was bullied for choosing a non-aggressive sport that most kids called a 'sissy sport,' " he said. "But this (First Tee) gave me the perseverance to continue the sport I love."
Furthermore, the program has shown him the importance of honesty, good sportsmanship, exercising good judgment and having respect for himself and others.
"Coaches have also taught me to have a positive mindset and . . . to have responsibility on and off the golf course," Jimmy wrote in the lengthy application form.
Ian Baxter, First Tee of Tampa Bay executive director, described the teenager as a terrific role model for the younger kids Jimmy mentors.
"He's just a wonderful kid in general," Baxter said. "He's personable, he's a good student and he interacts well with others."
First Tee of Tampa Bay program director Mackenzie Mack, who hopes to help Jimmy earn a college scholarship if his grades remain high, concurred.
"James (as she calls him) is a great asset to the First Tee network," she said.
While Jimmy has aspirations of becoming either a physicist or an engineer in adulthood, his primary focus for the moment is the tournament. Prior to the trip, Jimmy marveled at the chance to play with legends of the game on a golf course he's only read about and admired in TV clips. He also spoke in awe about making his first trip on an airplane.
"I'm still trying to absorb it all," Jimmy said. "It seems so surreal."
Contact Joyce McKenzie at [email protected]