I’m going to begin this story by springing forward to the present. Two weeks ago, on a wet, gloomy Thursday in late September, Matthew Wilson did something that 5 years ago I would have never dreamed possible. As a senior, he led the Meade County Boys Golf Team at their regional tournament at Elizabethtown Country Club and qualified as in individual for the KHSAA Boys State Tournament. To really understand how proud I am of Matthew and just how far he has come, I feel that I need to go back the beginning.
For those who are not golfers, The First Tee is a national youth sports organization whose mission is to grow the game of golf by transforming the experience that kids (and families) have with the sport. Since its inception in 1997, The First Tee has reached more than 15 million kids, positively impacting their lives. In the late 90’s The First Tee was started as a way to bring an affordable junior golf program to communities that did not have them, especially in economically disadvantaged areas. Soon after, it became evident that blending the rules of the game with life and leadership skills would create kids and teens that didn’t just learn how to putt – they were learning important life lessons. The Meade Activity Center officially became an affiliate of The First Tee of Louisville in 2012. In every experience with The First Tee, kids are introduced to our core values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy, and judgment. Our goal is to not necessarily to build the next tour star. Our goal is to build relationships that lead to boys and girls who display strong character, morals, and ethics.
Matthew started The First Tee program with us at the MAC in 7th grade. He showed up to his first class with nothing more than a positive attitude. Like many of our kids he didn’t have clubs and simply utilized the junior clubs that we have cut to fit the heights of various participants. Matt was quiet and very passive. Simply stated, he was a little bit unsure of himself in his surroundings. He was bashful and certainly a beginner, but he did seem eager to learn more about the game of golf. Over the next few years Matt continued taking multiple sessions of our First Tee Life Skills Program and also junior golf camps. I worked with him directly to provide individual instruction and I constantly would see him working on the driving range or putting green by himself. He was giving it his all and was always a polite young man, but I wasn’t sure he would ever turn the corner with his golf game. After all, golf is incredibly difficult and sometimes even the most talented players can’t quite master the mental aspect.
Once Matthew had developed a little bit more fundamental ability, he participated on one of the first PGA Jr. Leagues formed by our local kids here in Meade County. Our team would travel around and play matches against Elizabethtown, Shepherdsville, Bardstown, and Louisville. It is a great feeder program to introduce a little bit of competition while keeping fun as the emphasis to boys and girls ages 8-14. During the PGA Jr. League, progress but no “breakthrough”. By the time that Matthew got to Meade County High School he went out for the boys golf team. He was by no means a phenom but he was patient and was very dedicated to improving regardless of the time that had to be put in. I would talk to him and his parents about how things were going and the sentiment was always, “getting close, or trying to put it all together”.
Around the beginning of 2017 something happened that proved pivotal in the process. Matthew was beginning to play alongside some of his extended family in the offseason. The same relatives who saw the shy young man that came to us in 2013, were starting to see a 16 year old kid who could hit a golf ball better than all of them. When he would go out to play, I saw a spark in him that I hadn’t seen before. That summer I asked Matthew to play with me in 2017 First Tee Benefit Scramble. I was very impressed by his confident demeanor and I was also happy to see that growing a few inches had added to his distance on the course. The most amazing thing for me that July afternoon was watching Matthew interact with the other adults in the tournament and his complete lack of fear in a setting that would have proved unnerving for many. Later that year I would go on to hire Matthew to work for the MAC in a part-time golf shop position. His new self-assuredness was the final piece of the puzzle that made it easy for me to give a kid with a great attitude and a 4.0 GPA a job.
Skip forward one year to the fall of 2018 and you will find Matthew playing the #4 or #5 seed for a Meade County Boys Golf Team that is poised to make some noise in the postseason. As a team they are incredibly young and have only one upper classman on their varsity tournament team…..Matthew. Many of the freshman and sophomore boys experienced great success early in the year while Matt continued to play ok, but not great. After a washout early in the week, on September 27th in cold, windy, wet conditions this young man who first picked up a club as a middle schooler put his nose to the grindstone and kept it together when others faltered. Any good player can play on a sunny 80 degree day, but it takes mental fortitude to play well on a day that leisure golfers would avoid like the plague. On a day in that was quite possibly the worst conditions of the season, Matthew Wilson shot his first round in the 70’s in his high school tournament career. His 79 would be good enough for a 2nd place individual finish and a trip to Bowling Green Country Club for the State Tournament. I got a text from him right after the round that said, “Aaron I will not be able to work this Friday or Saturday, as I will be playing in the State Tournament. Do I need to find people to cover for me?” My first reaction was a little bit of shock, but then laughter because I loved the fact that he was still acting like the responsible and accountable kid that I got to know over 5 years ago.
The First Tee and all youth sports programs that focus on youth development are critical in bringing kids to their potential, not necessarily in golf, baseball, or basketball, but outside the playing field. It is truly remarkable to see what positive mentor relationships do for kids and how those lessons learned can be applied throughout life. I couldn’t be prouder of Matthew Wilson and I wish him the best of luck in his pursuits as he enters college next year. I know he has big aspirations to be an engineer. If he shows the same perseverance in his career path as he has on the golf course these past few years, I’d say he’s a lock. Good Luck Buddy.
Meade Activity Center & River Trace Golf