LITTLE ROCK — Degree of difficulty is the only remaining excuse for not playing The First Tee of Central Arkansas.
When the facility opened 10 years ago, there was the perception that the layout was a pitch-and-putt primer for kids and not worthy of an adult with a driver. Those who knew better tried to sell the challenge of the 3,428-yard nine holes on the Chairman’s Course and the option of playing a second set of tees at 2,790 yards, but some of the uninformed countered by correctly pointing out there were no riding carts.
Not long ago, The First Tee acquired some carts.
Confronted with that news, the stubborn harped on the info that the Bentgrass greens were spotty and cited the local municipal courses with excellent bermuda putting surfaces.
Now, The First Tee has the same bermuda greens, a transition undertaken by many courses that gave up the fight to keep Bentgrass alive in the heat of the South. The transformation took eight weeks and when the facility opened its doors on Sunday and waived the greens fees, more than 100 people showed up despite triple-digit temperatures. Not quite half were first-timers, many of them with kids in tow.
The greens have a thorough covering of the bermuda, but it will be a while before they are as firm as the ones installed a couple of years ago at several courses in central Arkansas, including a couple of municipal layouts.
Bob Hinn, course superintendent at The First Tee, has been asked more than once how long before the greens are as fast as others in the area. His joking response goes something like this, "It’s only been eight weeks. How fast were you when you were eight weeks?"
He can lower the mower as much as he wants, but it will take a while before the underpinnings firm up. For now, players should revel in making and repairing ball marks.
The foursome that was first out on the "Big Nine" on Sunday included a first-timer who was duly impressed. They had been pushing the group’s geezer to adopt the PGA’s plea to "Tee It Forward," and the Chairman’s Course was perfect for that pursuit.
On the 208-yard third hole, they hit 3-wood, 5-wood, and 3-iron and the old man had a 7-iron from the green tees. When they rolled up to the tee box on the par-four fourth and the sky caddy said 460 yards, they kept motoring to the green tees and shooed the veteran to the gold tees at 314 yards.
The second time around, everybody played the green tees and scores were not much different than from the blues. When the greens have some slope and are bunkered, iron play and the short game are still at a premium.
And, the Honors Course, with more bunkered greens, levels the playing field. Carrying a couple of wedges and a putter, it can be navigated in 30-40 minutes.
As a result of Sunday’s tour, The First Tee facility will be incorporated into the rotation for the annual GWTTCP (Guys Who Think They Can Play) tournament with the Rowdy Hog trophy at stake. That is a ringing endorsement from guys who are picky about their golf courses. Besides, they all like the idea of supporting The First Tee, with its emphasis on life lessons.
The PGA is constantly pushing a year-old effort to raise $100 million by the end of the year to expand The First Tee program to reach an additional 10 million young people by 2017. A $5 million donation from now-deceased Jack Stephens helped kick off the program several years ago.
I have not played The First Tee facilities in Fort Smith, Lowell, Texarkana, or Blytheville. The one in Little Rock is good golf for a good cause. What can be better?
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.