First Tee Golf for All Golf in Schools Golf Ontario

Orr Lake Golf Club Stepping Up to Make Impact on Youth, Under-Represented Communities

Since partnering with Golf Canada, First Tee – Ontario has been bringing the joy of golf to youth across the province through various in-school and after-school programs.

 These initiatives have not only introduced young people to the sport but have also played a crucial role in building character, instilling values, and teaching the importance of integrity, perseverance, and respect, thereby enriching their lives both on and off the course.

“The whole purpose of First Tee is to help communities that are under-represented,” said Sue Westwood, PGA of Canada professional with more than 20-years of experience.

Orr Lake Golf Club in Elmvale was named an official First Tee – Ontario location by Golf Canada on April 26.

Jason Harris, general manager and facility owner, was a heavy influence in having his course host. Why? His passion for growing the game of golf in Ontario.

“We’ve been doing these things (to grow the game) within the community for 10 years now,” he says.

While running the First Tee program from Orr Lake Golf Club, Harris and Westwood have already worked together to bring several programs to both youth and adults either new to the game or in under-represented communities.

The most notable program is Golf in Schools, which teaches elementary school students the game of golf, whether they are first-timers or have heard bits of the game, and helps them build character and confidence to play.

“When I see a child go out there and hit a ball for the first time, their expression on their face is priceless,” says Westwood. “They have a big smile on their face, that’s what the big payoff is for me.”

When teaching children who are just picking up a golf club, Westwood might teach the basics of hitting a ball, but the ways she does it are centred around team building and passion for the game.

“I get little sayings that are helpful for the kids to remember, like hot dog and a bun when they go to grip the clubs, so they make sure to keep their hands together,” she explains. “From there, I say ‘in golf, do you want to have your hands apart or together,’ then they’ll all say ‘together.’”

Other lessons Westwood would give to children are the “triangle” position (feet lined up with ball) and lining up the club face to the target on swings.

“Now they all want to come back to class because they all had so much fun,” she said.

Orr Lake Golf Club currently sponsors five schools: Hillsdale Elementary School (Hillsdale); Our Lady of Lourdes School (Toronto); Wyevale Central Public School (Tiny); Huronia Centennial Elementary School (Elmvale) and St Antoine Daniel Catholic School (Toronto).

Recruiting schools and children into the Golf in Schools program is a lengthy process for both Harris and Westwood, who started reaching out to them early in the year before the golf season even starts.

“I’d go into the schools, and I’d introduce the sport to grades one thru five, and I just set up little putting station, chipping and a full swing station,” Westwood says.

Then, once Orr Lake opens for playing around mid-April, Harris and Westwood arrange for the children of each school at a time to be bussed to the course.

“We pay for the buses to come here (Orr Lake), and expenses allow buses to go back and forth to the schools, pick up any grade, they come here, then we take them around our three-hole, Par-3 golf course,” explains Westwood.

For purposes of having fun, the children are paired into groups and go out on to the Orr Lake’s three-hole course and not just hit off a driving range or putt on a practice green.

“We basically invested in that as part of our ‘Growing the Game’ initiative,” explains Harris. “We needed a spot where beginners and where Sue (and Paul Jennings – previous pro – before her) had a location where they can go and teach.”

The most recent school to join the Golf in Schools program was Christian Island Elementary School, located on an island in Georgian Bay that is an Ojibwa reserve and home of the Beausoleil First Nation.

Despite the location, Harris and Westwood went to even greater lengths to get more children into the game, going to them by ferry and setting up their own mini course.

“We ended up setting it up in their baseball field, and we set up five small holes,” Westwood said. “They all had a really good experience once they started playing.”

Westwood taught four separate classes, which showcased both the basics of the game, team-building exercises and the spirit of playing golf.

“Some of them had never heard of golf before, some had and it was a really good experience,” she said.

In total, Harris and Westwood expect to see around 600 students come to the course this year.

“Paying for the buses, paying for Sue’s time to go into the schools, paying for the kids to come out here with Sue and one of our inspectors to organize everything, so we’re investing quite a bit with the focus of introducing more people to the game of golf,” Harris says.

The club doesn’t just host the Golf in Schools program, but some of their other programs include Ladies Learn to Golf, which has 180 members, Kids Play Free and other programs for more under-represented communities that both Harris and Westwood believe don’t get a lot of opportunities.

“We’re not in a big, populated area, we’re sort of in the middle of nowhere, we’re a small community-based golf course, and that’s where we decided to put all our energy and our focus (into growing golf),” he said.

Each program, particularly Golf in Schools, was at risk of being shut down when the COVID-19 Pandemic was in full swing.

“We missed a bunch of COVID years, but we started back up again last year, so our second year back at it again since COVID,” says Harris.

For getting people in his community into golf, Harris expresses gratitude for having staff that understand and have the same feelings of growing the game as he does.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have started off with Paul Jennings (former CPGA Professional), we’re very fortunate we ended up with Sue Westwood, and both of those golf pros had the same philosophy and really wanted to focus on growing the game of golf,” he said. 

Harris believes the latest recruitment of Christian Lake Elementary School, and the upcoming recruitments of Tay Shores Public School (Harbour) and Mundy’s Bay Elementary School (Midland), can lead to future expansion and bring more schools into the fold.

“Teaming up with Golf Canada and the First Tee program is basically giving us access to funds to expand this (Golf in Schools) program further than what would just benefit our golf course,” Harris explained.

By raising enough funds from running First Tee – Ontario out of Orr Lake Golf Club, Harris hopes to take a “big lead” to sponsor more schools further away from the course in order to further grow the program and bring more children into the sport.

“Ultimately, we are in the golf industry, it’s not just about my golf course, and the bigger we can make this and the more we can expand this, the better it’s going to be for everybody around,” he says.