The Children’s Golf Foundation, Inc. (CGF) has a long history that dates back to 1988, when a retired telephone worker, and our founder, George McGrory (known as “Mr. Mac,” pictured right standing in yellow hat), dedicated his life to bringing the game of golf to young people with special needs and disabilities. It all began with partnerships with a few special needs classes from local elementary schools. The number of students grew quickly, and Mr. Mac found himself and his group of volunteers spending many hours at local driving ranges.
CGF continued to grow under Mr. Mac’s leadership until there were over 450 special needs students from thirteen Palm Beach County schools active in the program. It became apparent that a lack of driving range access was slowing the growth of CGF. The Board of Directors decided it was time to build our own facility. In 1996, with help from Karen Marcus, a Palm Beach County Commissioner, CGF leased 12 acres from the Solid Waste Authority in Dyer Park to build a practice facility and short course. With financial assistance from individuals and organizations involved in the game of golf and sports, such as Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, the USGA, Jan Beljan of Fazio Golf Course Design, The Palm Beach Kennel Club, Wayne Huizenga, the Miami Dolphins and the Florida Marlins, and many local country clubs, an extensive fundraising program began to build the facility.
CGF broke ground on the golf facility in 1998. With generous support from George S. May International and Dorothy May Campbell, a 2,500 square foot clubhouse was added to the project. The facility was constructed in stages as dollars were raised and officially opened in 2002 (pictured left during construction). With an influential Board of Directors that included Judge Walter Colbath, Bob Nichols, Dennis Walters and Dr. Gary Wiren, the CGF flourished and expanded its programs to thousands of individuals with special needs. The most popular of the programs were Saturday morning golf sessions at the newly opened facility. After the facility was built, therapists from the newly constructed VA Hospital visited and asked if we would also work with veterans with disabilities. CGF programs grew serving special needs children and veterans.
The hurricanes of 2004 and 2005 caused significant damage to the facility and clubhouse. The following economic recession of 2007 severely hampered CGF’s ability to raise funds and continue operations. In 2008, the facility was all but closed, except for Saturday morning classes. Dick Sheehan, a CGF Board Member at the time, accepted the task of reorganizing a new Board of Directors and staff that would focus on the re-vitalization of the facility and programs. Sheehan, then acting as Chairman, contacted First Tee Headquarters and together with Vice Chairman, Steve Rockoff, set about constructing an agreement to create a new First Tee chapter serving Palm Beach and southern Martin Counties. With this new agreement in place, Sheehan and Ken Kennerly, Executive Director of The Honda Classic, met and arrived at an agreement whereby The Honda Classic would become a Founding Partner of the new chapter. Kennerly also became a CGF Board Member. Thereafter, Sheehan met with longtime friend Joe Steranka, President & CEO of The PGA of America to enlist their help and support. With The Honda Classic, The PGA of America, Jack Nicklaus and Erin Finnegan of the Michael B. Finnegan Foundation (our other Founding Partner) solidly behind us, First Tee – Palm Beaches (FTPB) was born. Sheehan was instrumental in leading the chapter through the early days to ensure our success and served as Chairman until 2013, and subsequently became our first Chairman Emeritus.
In mid-2009, CGF hired Craig Watson, a PGA Professional and son of local golf legend Bob Watson, as Executive Director. Watson also served as Program Director and Development Director, and managed the repair and reopening process. He also began the coach training process taught by First Tee. With the support of our two Founding Partners- The Honda Classic and The Finnegan Foundation, we began programming in partnership with 13 afterschool elementary programs. True to our founding mission, we continued to offer many programs for young people with special needs and veterans with disabilities.
FTPB experienced steady growth under Watson and other PGA Professionals, including Earl Puckett and Dave McNulty. In 2011, FTPB expanded the staff. Carl Mistretta Jr., a golf course design and business development executive was hired as Executive Director and Watson moved into the full-time role of Program Director to meet the rapidly expanding growth of students and programs. Long term fundraising and strategic plans were developed with key components being the complete renovation of the practice facility and clubhouse. In early 2012, Jack Barrett was hired as Development Director to continue our financial growth and fundraising efforts. Earl Puckett introduced FTPB to Leon McNair, President of Wadsworth Golf Charities. McNair helped FTPB apply for and receive a substantial grant to re-design and re-grass the entire practice facility.
The facility was completely renovated in the summer of 2012 with the help of Chris Cochran of Nicklaus Design, The Toro Company, John Copeland of Superior Golf Concepts, Mike Roach of Roach Irrigation, Mark Reid of The Breakers, and many, many others. The new facility reopened in January 2013 and features expanded tee areas, a short course with infinite playing options, practice bunkers and putting and chipping greens.
During the summer of 2012, Andrew Hunt, a Martin County resident approached FTPB regarding the expansion of programming to the Treasure Coast. CGF applied for an expansion of territory and was awarded all of Martin and St. Lucie Counties. These two new counties are managed as First Tee – Treasure Coast (FTTC) under CGF. Andrew subsequently became a Trustee of First Tee and serves as President of FTTC and an officer on the CGF Board. Gennifer Garvin, LPGA and a First Tee Recognized Coach was hired as Director of Operations for FTTC. Gennifer retired with the birth of her second child in 2020. Anthony Coletta, a Keiser College of Golf graduate, and longtime FTTC Coach and employee was then promoted to FTTC Director of Operations.
With a substantial grant from the Caross Foundation, under the direction of First Tee Trustee Bob Simses, funding was granted to replace the badly damaged clubhouse at the Finnegan Learning Center in the summer of 2013. The new building was re-designed to meet the growing needs of CGF as our territory, staff and mission expanded.
In early 2014, Watson accepted the position of Founding Golf Coach of both the men’s and women’s golf teams at Palm Beach Atlantic College. Connie Capanegra, LPGA, one of our advanced Coaches transitioned into the role of Program Director. The PBAU golf teams practice at our facility and Watson continues to coach for CGF.
CGF was awarded another territory expansion into Broward County in February 2014. CGF hired Jack Bloomfield, a former sales representative for Callaway Golf, as the Director of Operations of First Tee – Broward (FTBD). FTBD has enjoyed tremendous success in establishing new program locations and serving young people with special needs. Key to FTBD’s success is the generous support from the first chapter President and Legacy Partner, Butch Buchholz. Butch is a tennis icon and served as Tournament Chairman of the WGC event at Doral. Bloomfield retired in 2021 and Sean Kicker, PGA was hired as the new Director of Operations of FTBD.
In 2020, chapter alumna Emily Valentine, a First Tee Recognized Coach, joined CGF as our Director of Program Development. Emily also oversees all aspects of our marketing, publications and social media accounts. In 2022, Darrell Bock, PGA, a former employee of the PGA of America HQ joined our team as Director of Operations of First Tee – Palm Beaches.
Our very large chapter with 3 unique territories and trade names now has an all-encompassing name and logo of First Tee – Florida Gold Coast (FTFGC). Today, FT-FGC serves over 4,000 students each year in First Tee programs and continues to serve thousands of children with special needs. We have announced new partnerships to expand our programs for veterans with support of Pratt & Whitney, the Harry T. Mangurian Jr. Foundation, the Cornelia T. Bailey Foundation and Mission United. Thousands of young people from Hollywood to Fort Pierce are currently enrolled at many different green grass program locations in our territory that offer First Tee life skills and character-building programs. Our students and coaches have been selected to attend many First Tee HQ National Participant Opportunities, such as playing at Pebble Beach in a First Tee PGA Champions Tour event. We have over 40 active Coaches that have attended training from First Tee and multiple Coaches that have achieved the position of a First Tee Recognized Coach.