Playing for character: First Tee returns to Bellingham after three-year absence


Tony Dear, right, teaches a stance to 10-year-old Aidan Honnoll and Russ Kihm, left, uses a rake to set up lines for Sam Dear, in blue, as they practice hitting out of a bunker at the First Tee golf instruction program for kids at North Bellingham Golf Course on Wednesday, June 11, 2014 in Bellingham, Wash.

ANDY BRONSON — The Bellingham Herald

Ten-year-old Aidan Honnoll, donning a Pittsburgh Pirates hat and wearing sunglasses that cover up most of his face, arrived to North Bellingham Golf Course, clubs in hand. He anxiously awaited the beginning of practice.

The man running the show, coach Tony Dear, walks up to Aidan and asks him if they've practiced bunkers yet. They haven't.

"Well then we'll step in and try it out today. If we are going to play nine holes in 72 strokes, we'll have to know how to play out of bunkers," Dear said.

Suddenly, Honnoll seemed very nervous. He shifts his weight back and forth, his hands grasping one another behind his back.

Honnoll is one of five golfers involved in the return of Bellingham's First Tee program. The First Tee is a youth development program that aims to develop character alongside teaching the basics of golf.

The program has existed across the United States since 1997 and was briefly a part of Bellingham until some coach transitions forced the program to shut down three years ago.

Dear, having previously assisted and volunteered with First Tee and wanting his son, Sam, to be a part of it, started the program up again five weeks ago. The program is now in its sixth week.

"I knew what a fantastic program it was," Dear said. "I think everyone in the world should have a program like this. It's introducing kids to a fun, healthy sport that they can play for the rest of their lives and we're teaching them life skills that they will benefit hugely from. I feel sorry for cities that don't have it."

Honnoll doesn't care about the reasoning behind how the program came to be, though. He just knows that he will have to hit a 1.68-inch white ball out of a sand pit.

First, Honnoll, Sam, Dear and fellow coach Russ Kihm - the group usually has two coaches and five kids, but the herd is narrowed due to various vacations and injuries - sit down to go over the values that must be taught as part of First Tee.

Honnoll struggles to stay focused. He turns his head to look at the sand again.

Despite his 10-year-old attention span, Honnoll is able to quickly recite the character values taught in First Tee, as Dear quizzes Sam and Honnoll on the first five lessons, each of them using their personal lives to relate to the course material.

After 30 minutes, the talking is over, much to the delight of antsy Honnoll and Sam.

"What I've found and what I'll definitely alter is I will talk less because the kids want to play golf," Dear said. "But the nine core values and the code of conduct are important. That's an important part of The First Tee and I want my son to learn that. I know the other parents want their children to learn it, too."

Finally, Honnoll steps into the sand.

"Let's just see where you're at," Dear said, asking both kids to demonstrate.

Aidan steps up. His feet shift back and forth, he seems unstable in the sand. The feeling is much different than the grass he's used to swinging on. Uncomfortably, he swings.

Remarkably, his club connects with the ball. It's not clean, but he doesn't quite care, the ball leaves the bunker and sails over the green. At 10 years old, it's an achievement to just get it out. Honnoll lets a grin sneak across his face.

Dear hasn't even begun teaching how to play in bunkers and Honnoll already seems a natural.

"In the sand, the goal isn't to hit the ball, but to hit the sand behind the ball," Dear said.

"Like an explosion," Honnoll said.

Dear appears shocked. That's exactly what a sand shot is called - an explosion shot.

It's no surprise Honnoll grasped the concept so quickly. He loves the physics side of golf. Earlier in the week, he wanted his mother to cut open a golf ball so he could see what was inside.

After spending 20 minutes in the sand, with successes and failures, Honnoll is excited to head over to the driving range.

He knows the grass surface. As he walks over, it's apparent he's definitely feeling more confident.

His first three shots at the range aren't very good. One hits off the toe of his club and shoots to the right. Another hits the bottom of the club head and bounces forward. The third one is hit hard but low, barely off the ground.

Kihm walks over to Honnoll and gives him a tee.

"It's indestructible," Kihm says.

Honnoll is excited. He pushes the tee into the ground and places a ball on it. Honnoll gets down on one knee and holds the club in front of him as he lines the ball up to his target.

He steps up to the ball.

His swing is pure. He connects with the ball and drills it 125 yards straight over his target.

Honnoll's smile stetches from ear to ear.

"What I hope is we make golf fun," Dear said. "It used to be that, as a young coach, you just want to see results. I really don't care. I could care less how good they become. As long as they can go out onto a golf course and have fun."

Dear also knows that when kids are playing well they are also having more fun.

"It feels great," Sam said of when he hits a good shot. "It's like when you hit a home run in little league or got a touchdown in football. It's like all of your downsides are thrown away and you feel joyful."

The First Tee is a nine-session program and Dear's next session will start on July 2. The groups are divided into different groups based on age and skill level. Aidan and Sam are in the par division, which is typically 10- and 11-year-olds.

The summer sessions will be the par group on Wednesdays and the birdie group (around 12- and 13-year-olds) will be on Fridays at North Bellingham Golf Course. It costs $175, which includes a membership to the Grassroots Golf Foundation.

To sign up for The First Tee, visit

Reach Joshua Hart by email at or by calling 360-715-2851.

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