Andy Bennett, executive director of the First Tee of WNY, finds fulfillment in the program’s growth and the impact it has on youngsters. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Andrew Bennett doesn’t think this story should be about him.

The executive director of the First Tee of Western New York can eloquently convey the impact helping children learn to play golf has had on him. He lights up when giving examples of how those kids have grown from the values they’ve learned.

Ask him to talk about himself, however, and Bennett flashes a sheepish grin. That’s never been his thing.

Who better, though, to teach lessons on adversity, and overcoming the challenges life has thrown at you, than someone who nearly had theirs taken away?

That is Bennett’s story. It’s one that nearly had a tragic ending, but has instead become a tale of triumph that illustrates the difference a person can make when they dedicate their life to helping others.

As a 24-year-old, Bennett arrived in Hawaii, anxious for vacation. Just hours later, he found himself in the hospital, fighting for his life. In an attack police would later tell him they believed to gang related, Bennett was assaulted. The attack left him with bleeding on the brain.

“I don’t want to make more of it than it needs to be,” Bennett said. “It was a freak accident. You go into a children’s hospital and it makes me realize what happened to me is not as serious as what some of them have to do on a day-to-day basis. It was a few months of recovery. It was unfortunate that it happened, and out of my control.

“It does make you think a little bit differently about life.”

Speaking with Bennett today, 9½ years later, you would have no idea about the incident. Bennett’s injury is in the past, and he’d prefer to keep it there. He’s much more comfortable talking about the present, and what The First Tee is providing to children in Western New York.

When he came aboard nearly four years ago, the organization had an operating budget of about $90,000. Today, that’s tripled to about $280,000. Last year, about 3,700 children participated in The First Tee programming, with a goal to reach 5,000 this year. That could be at any of the eight golf-course locations, dozen schools or at programming offered by area Boys and Girls Clubs that all work with The First Tee.

“Everything we’ve tried has grown and continues to grow,” Bennett said. “We want to get more schools involved, more community centers involved. This aggressive approach wouldn’t be possible if we didn’t have the staff that we do. We’ve got some very talented coaches who are committed and passionate.”

Bennett spoke during an interview at the Paddock Golf Dome in the Town of Tonawanda – one of The First Tee’s partners that donates use of the facility for no charge. The organization is also entering its third year partnering with Erie County Parks, which has provided countless hours of course time at Elma Meadows and Grover Cleveland, creating more opportunities for youth in the Southtowns and the city. These types of partnership have proven to be invaluable.

“We’re going to, for the first time, have spring classes at Brighton and at Elma Meadows,” Bennett said of plans for this golf season. Additionally, “Our program at Grover is going to be five days a week this year. What’s neat about that is we’re adding in parent-child playing component. … We’re really trying to get more on-course opportunities for the kids, and engage parents more. That’s just so important, because it’s the unique part of golf. You can actually partake in the activity with your child.”

Golf has been a part of Bennett’s life since he was a child. A successful junior career included victories in the Buffalo District Golf Association sub-junior and junior match play tournaments, making it to the round of 16 at the International Junior Masters, and earning All-Catholic honors all four years playing for St. Joe’s, where he now coaches the golf team along with his former Marauders teammate, Dan Misko.

“Golf is funny. It’s fickle,” Bennett said. “You can from one week to the next have a completely different score. That’s what makes it so unique. I had a rough transition into my first year of college and part of that was not performing well on the golf course. I put a lot of stock in that, and it didn’t work out.”

After his freshman year of college at the University of Rochester, Bennett worked on his game all summer with a goal of making the golf team in the fall.

“I came up one or two shots short in the tryout,” he said. “That was tough. Golf’s a bitter-sweet relationship. I mean, it really is. But the benefits that I’ve gained from the game, the relationships I’ve made, far outweigh any disappointing circumstances.”

Even though his playing days were behind him, Bennett pursued a career in the golf industry after graduating from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. He worked as an assistant golf professional in North Carolina (Old Chatman Golf Club), Florida (McArthur Golf Club) and New York (Oak Hill, Crag Burn) before eventually leaving the golf business. Before coming to The First Tee, he worked as an account executive for the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County.

“It was a way to connect passion and professional experience,” he said. “Having a passion for the game and a passion for helping young people is something I’ve always had.

“I think at non-profits in general, when you’re out trying to raise support for something, if you believe in it strong enough, it doesn’t feel like work. I so strongly believe in the impact golf can make on a young person of any background, but particularly from a background that may be less supportive.”

That neatly summarizes what The First Tee is all about. Founded in 1997 as a collaborative effort between the biggest organizations in golf – the USGA, PGA of America, PGA and LPGA tours and the Masters Tournament – the original goal was to bring an affordable junior golf program to communities that did not have them. Inherent in golf, however, are life skills needed on and off the course.

From The First Tee’s national website comes this explanation on how those are taught: “Whether those challenges are social or emotional, The First Tee uses golf as the foundation for a curriculum that teaches a range of valuable life and leadership lessons.

“In every experience with The First Tee youth are introduced to our nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment.”

On a local level, The First Tee operates with an executive director, a program director, a volunteer board of directors and more than a dozen part-time head coaches.

Funding comes from local grants, individual and memorial donations and fundraising events. The biggest one of those will be the chapter’s Kids First Golf Classic, which will be held June 5 at Park Country Club. In 2016, more than $90,000 was raised to support The First Tee’s mission. This year, the event will feature both morning and afternoon shotgun starts. Those who would like more information can visit thefirstteewesternny.org.

There will be First Tee participants at the tournament, sharing their stories of how the program has impacted their lives.

“It makes you feel awesome. It gives you purpose. It gets you up in the morning,” Bennett said of hearing those stories. “I can speak for our board, our coaches, our volunteers, knowing that you make that difference is what drives you.

“We’re very lucky what we’ve been able to establish. It’s not about just hoping they become great golfers, but great leaders, kids who will become contributing members of our community, and one day they can give back. It’s a really great group of people who are involved and on the same page, believing in the importance of what we do.”

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