East of Eden: The Kids of the First Tee of Monterey County – Images by Todd Bigelow

Early in 2011 I was assigned to spend a week amid the fields that dot the central coast in Steinbeck country. It’s a familiar place for me as I’ve come to understand the lives of hard working immigrant families who stoop to pick the country’s crops. But this story was different from the many others. I wasn’t going to spend time any shooting in the orchards or strawberry fields. This was not a story documenting the long hours and low pay lives of migrant field workers. No, this was to be a look at the children of the hard scrabble community of Salinas, and one Jose Calderon, the son of field workers, who were discovering a world of opportunity through golf. Yes, that’s right, golf.

Not too often do worlds collide in sports, but when they do, it’s worth taking note. When Jesse Owens took the 1936 Olympics by storm, or Danica Patrick broke the good old boy network of NASCAR drivers, or when Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, those stories transcended sports because worlds that usually remained separate simply collided. And that’s how I saw this story as I gathered my gear to begin shooting at the First Tee of Monterey County, the non profit that offers golf instruction, academic support and core value training to the mostly underprivileged kids of Salinas. Oh, and they do it for free.

Only a couple dozen miles from the First Tee of Monterey County is sheer opulence and grandeur the likes of which the real 1% truly understand. Lining the famous 17 Mile Drive that meanders around Pebble Beach are the homes of financial wizards Charles Schwab and Pimco’s Bill Gross. Presidents along with the world’s elite can slip in and out of adjacent Cypress Point, arguably the most exclusive private golf club in the world. But head east about 25 miles and you’ll find elementary school student Jose Calderon, complete in worn sneakers and sweatpants, completing his homework so he can get to polishing his golf swing on the range. In other words, twenty five miles equates to a whole other world.

Jose, along with the hundreds of others, are in the process of learning the game of golf in a community where golf is seen as something for the elite. Salinas has it’s share of gangs and poverty like many communities, but it has the First Tee to offer a free inroad into golf. The kids, like Jose, who spend each afternoon at the First Tee, are gradually assimilated into the sport both physically and mentally. Each must maintain good grades and citizenship and school and exhibit sportsmanship in all competition. These are values that the First Tee hopes the young boys and girls will hold onto for life, whether they continue with golf or not. As for Jose, he has shown a tenacity and love for the game while becoming a model student at his elementary school, a turnaround that his parents attribute to the First Tee.

The days I spent at First Tee for Sports Illustrated really reminded me that a sport like golf, long considered something off limits for kids from “the street” can affect change in ways that is profound. But the kids need the opportunity to see it, feel it and understand it. Most importantly, the First Tee seems to understand that raising good golfers means raising respectful children who take their academics as serious they do their golf. Giving the parents of a tough town like Salinas a hand is a great way to get it done.

For Alan Shipnuck’s wonderful article in Sports Illustrated, please visit http://www.golf.com/tour-and-news/first-tee-monterey-county-often-only-alternative-kids-salinas.

Photographed for Sports Illustrated. (Todd Bigelow)

Below is a look at some of the great kids who participate in the program!

First Tee of Monterey Portraits – Images by Todd Bigelow

A email from Barry Phillips, the executive director for the First Tee of Monterey County, arrived a short time ago. He was pleased to announce that an anonymous donor sent a $5000 check to the non profit after reading the Sports Illlustrated profile. Now, that’s what it’s all about!

Visit the First Tee by clicking here


Todd Bigelow Photography

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