Though the FDR Golf Club has permanently closed, The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia, a youth development organization, continues to operate out of the 350-acre South Philadelphia park.
One day after the course’s closure in late October, the nonprofit, which is a chapter of The First Tee, a national children’s golfing program, took over the Jay Sigel Learning Center at FDR. The 4,000-square-foot practice facility encompasses two holes, a driving range and a 1,000-square-foot putting green.
Since 2004, The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia has maintained a location at FDR, which is one of its 17 locations throughout Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware, Chester, Burlington, Gloucester and Camden counties.
The organization aims to teach local children and adolescents valuable life lessons – both on and off the course.
“Our mission is to impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character and instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf,” said Rebecca Caimano, the program director of The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia.
Caimano says among all of its programs, The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia reaches about 5,000 students.
During the golf season, which runs from April through November, the organization offers 12 classes a week. Throughout the winter months, students can participate with indoor golf simulator sessions. Aside from in-house lessons, The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia manages outreach programs such as after-school programs at local schools and summer camps.
Since there are no referees or umpires in the sport of golf, The First Tee prides itself on teaching students how this concept mirrors real life; if an individual is not honest, the only person they’re cheating is themselves.
“I just know how it impacted me and my life,” said Louis Kelly, a lead coach and alumni of the program “…I know what it can provide, especially for me and then hopefully giving somebody that feedback that I got and make it even better.”
Kelly felt compelled to give back to an organization that he says taught him how to be a gentleman.
Through his teachings, he hopes to instill the same values he gained through The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia
“I just thought golf would be a good longtime sport to learn,” said 15-year-old Ben Dixon, one of Kelly’s students. “It definitely can teach you some life skills, like how to keep cool or improve your confidence, basically, and try to make your wellbeing better.”
Though The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia’s acquiring of the Jay Sigel Learning Center has added new features to the organization, the takeover has also led to some safety concerns, especially in light of the course’s closure.
Earlier this year, the city Department of Parks and Recreation announced the decision to close FDR Golf Club due to “unprofitable operations” and “frequent flooding,” as the course is located below sea level.
The announcement was made amidst the unveiling of the FDR Park Master Plan, which includes renovations to address concerns surrounding the rise of sea levels in Philadelphia as a result of climate change over the next century.
Despite the closures, The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia says members of the public still continue to golf on the unmaintained courses.
The public also occasionally uses the Jay Sigel Learning Center, which Caimano says is open only to participants of The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia.
“You can’t really tell people not to use it, but they’re really playing at their own risk…I think it’s really important for the public to know that, as a First Tee, we’re a nonprofit,” Caimano said. “So, we can’t just mow those greens and the fairways out there and have people use it, because it costs money to do that but we’re not charging people to use it.”
Parks and Recreation could not be reached for comment.
However, Caimano stresses that The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia continues to maintain a strong relationship with the city and supports its decisions regarding the FDR golf course and master plan.
“For right now, the way that it is, if this is beneficial, then this is beneficial…Sometimes, you just have to deal with the cards you’ve been dealt, and that’s what The First Tee is doing,” Caimano said. “We’re taking a situation that is not 100 percent the best thing possible, but at the same time, we’re making it 100 percent the best thing possible for our young people.”