For Brooksville Vice Mayor Kevin Hohn, there's much more to the game of golf than knocking around a little white ball. The sport also comes with inherent core values.
The fact that the city's First Tee youth golf program preaches cornerstone virtues such as honesty, respect, integrity, courtesy and self-reliance is why Hohn has become such a champion of the activity. And since signing on as a volunteer coach, he has seen the difference the program has made in the lives of young people.
"It's a very positive program all the way around," said Hohn, who coaches twice a week at the program's headquarters at the Quarry Golf Course. "Not only does it get kids involved in a worthwhile sports experience, it provides the kind of encouragement that can rub off and make them do better academically. It's hard to find fault with a program that offers that kind of guidance."
Launched in 1997 by the Professional Golfers Association and the Ladies Professional Golfers Association as a way to generate interest in golf among youth, the First Tee program is administered by about 5,300 school systems around the country as an after-school activity for young people 8 to 18. Hernando County's program, sponsored by the Brooksville Parks and Recreation Department, started in 2004.
Despite initial enthusiasm, Parks and Recreation Director Mike Walker said, the local program hasn't always fared well. Like other youth sports programs, First Tee fell victim to the city's budget cutbacks, as well as apathy from program sponsors.
"We've often struggled to find someone qualified to run it for the amount we could afford," Walker said.
However, with hiring last year of recreational leader Tiffany Taylor, who is a certified First Tee instructor, Walker believes the program is poised to quickly grow again, and an initiative is under way to attract more participants through the county school system. He expects enrollment to more than double this summer from the current 16 participants.
"Things are looking very promising for the first time in a long while," Walker said. "We have a lot more kids interested now, so if we can bring them into it, I think it could end up being one of the city's better youth sports programs."
Hohn, who joined the City Council in 2011, said that once he learned of the program and its needs, he made it a point to get involved and do what he could to assure its success.
"I told Mike that I would do whatever I could to help because the game of golf and being able to share something like that with someone who really wants to learn is a big thrill for me," he said. "And in the end, I think it's made me a better golfer."
A resident of Southern Hills Plantation Club and a member of its golf club, Hohn realized that in addition to volunteers, First Tee's greatest need has been money. Earlier this year, he began organizing a celebrity golf tournament that will take place Tuesday at Southern Hills with the hope of raising $20,000 for the program's scholarship and tuition assistance funds.
The tournament will welcome not only a number of pro golfers — including PGA tour winner Garrett Willis, Jim Dent, Graham Marsh, Morris Hatalsky and Jerry Heard — but also former professional baseball players Jeff Leonard and Tyrone Woods.
Said Hohn: "You really have to hand it to people who are willing to step up and help out a program that benefits kids as much as this program does. My hope is that we can raise money to keep it going for years to come.:
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.