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First Tee programs may merge

No matter how you slice it, the future of junior golf in Knox County is in jeopardy.

Serious financial concerns have led to a potential merger of competing programs that have tried to function separately for nearly a decade.

The board of directors of the First Tee of Knoxville, which includes Concord Park Par-3 off Northshore Drive, has asked to merge with the First Tee of Williams Creek near downtown.

It has been a prolonged struggle for all three Par-3 courses, including the First Tee of Knoxville at Beverly Park.

“I think we need to get all three courses under one big umbrella,” said Concord Park manager Tony Valentine. 

“It sounds like we are waiting on the board of directors of the First Tee of Knoxville to reach a decision. Something needs to happen before it’s too late — that’s for sure.”

Sam Newgent of Beverly Park and Deondre Jackson of Williams Creek have been mentioned as possible directors or co-directors of a unified program in Knox County.

It will be important to have someone in charge that understands the core principles of the First Tee, which has more than 260 First Tee programs nationwide. The goal is to use golf not so much as a sport, but rather as a place to learn etiquette, sportsmanship, honesty and integrity. The facilities also offer a safe place for children — regardless of their interest in golf. The structured environment can also feature computer classrooms and a place to do homework.

At least part of the local outcome depends on what happens in November, after Tim Burchett has taken office as Knox County mayor and if Bill Haslam is elected governor. 

All three non-profit courses have encountered staffing cutbacks amid substantial loss of income. Keith McElroy was let go by Knox County more than a year ago at Concord Park, despite doing a terrific job. Williams Creek has not replaced golf director Scott Masters, whose salary was slashed before he became an assistant pro at Fox Den Country Club in Farragut.

Budget projections have fallen short because of significantly less income from significantly fewer rounds.

Beverly Park could be in the most trouble, as play is down about 40 percent. It’s not just a down economy, either. Weather conditions have played a factor this summer with a record number of days when temperatures reached at least 90 and there was more rain than normal last year. Regardless of the reasons, the struggles have become a downward spiral that can’t be reversed.

Although a merger has been mentioned before, both First Tee programs lacked the motivation to do it — until now.

“I think we’re definitely headed in that direction,” said Joe Walsh, who is the director of City of Knoxville Parks & Recreation Department.

“Both boards do a good job, but it seems to make sense to have them working as one to deliver this important program to the kids of Knoxville/Knox County. They have met together as a group to discuss the logistics of merging,” he added.

Buddy Heins is chairman of the board of First Tee of Knoxville and was instrumental in the construction — at cost — of a new clubhouse at Concord Park. The course opened in 1983 and is in the best shape ever, Valentine said. He credits the efforts the past 18 months of Tom Conway, who worked on the maintenance staffs at Avalon and Deane Hill. The greens fees at Concord Park are just $7 for nine holes for adults and $5 for juniors 17 and under.

The executive board at Williams Creek — which no longer is referred to as the Wee Course — includes Jim Bush, Sam Anderson, Archie Ellis and Knox County Recreation Director Doug Bataille. They have considered several ways to reduce the debt service.

The 18-hole Williams Creek course opened in 2003.  As is the case with the nine-hole facilities at Concord Park and Beverly Park, adult memberships are available.

For more information about Concord Park, call 865-966-9103.


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