The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Sports

July 1, 2014

The First Tee of Sharon celebrates 15th anniversary

- — Professional golf star John Cook has received many honors and awards in his illustrious career, but probably none mean as much as those similar to the one he received Monday afternoon at The First Tee of Sharon.

During a special ceremony to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the local program, a permanent plaque was unveiled in his honor describing the contributions he has made to junior golf.

“The First Tee has always been close to our family and we have been involved in many ways since it’s inception,” said John before he and his sister, Cathy Cook-Russell, conducted a golf clinic before a good-sized crowd that attended the festivities at the Buhl Farm Golf Course. “Junior golf has always been close to the Cook family.”

And so has the First Tee of Sharon and its spot at Buhl Farm. John was here for the opening of the program, as well, in 1999.

“My sister and I played here many times when we were little,” said John, “My grandparents (Don and Margaret Neuman) lived right across the street (on 9th Street, Sharpsville). “We used to sneak over here to play whenever we could.”

The Cooks have special ties still since Carole Barker, the executive director of The First Tee of Sharon, is the twin sister of John and Cathy’s mom, Lyda. Lyda and her husband Jim — a former director of The World Series of Golf at Firestone Country Club in Akron for many years — also attended.

“They were a handful growing up (in California),” said Lyda with a laugh. “But we told them, no hanging out on the beach. If you are going to have cars, you either work or play golf.”

They both chose golf and went on to outstanding careers in college and professional ranks. While John is a TV golf analyst and still competes on the Champions Tour, Cathy dedicates a lot of time to teaching the game.

And both are huge backers of junior golf and The First Tee program where kids learn to play the right way. During the clinic conducted at Buhl Farm Golf Course, John stressed that fundamentals like grip, stance and posture are the simple keys.

“My teacher and mentor, Ken Venturi, all he preached were the fundamentals. He always used to tell me, ‘Let the golf  ball get in the way of your swing.’

“You need let the swing pass through the ball. You need a good, solid foundation and get your body to turn to take your hands and arms out if it. It’s really just one swing for all 13 clubs, unless you are hitting some kind of specialty shots.”

Cathy stressed that you need to enjoy the sport, that’s why you say you “play” golf.

“You play at it and that’s as it’s designed to be, a game. Play it like it’s a toy.”

She said that three things you often hear that are wrong include:

ä Keep your head down. (”Your head has to move with your body as you swing and turn. Keep your eye on the ball.”)

ä Bend your knees. (”Do you see athletes in other sports running or competing with their knees bent? Bend at the waist and have your butt out.”)

ä Keep your left arm straight. (”When you turn your body, your arms will swing the way they are supposed to.”)

The pair stressed that everyone has a different rhythm and tempo to their swing, and you just need to find what works best for you and be consistent.

John said that one of the best tournaments of the year and most important to him is the Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach, that pairs a PGA player with two businessmen and a junior player from one of the many First Tee programs across the country.

He introduced former Sharpsville High golf standout Andy Demofonte, who was part of the First Tee of Sharon program and had a chance to play with John at Pebble Beach. He had Demofonte — a student in the pharmacy program at Duquesne University — hit some shots.

Cathy talked of how her three children are all involved in other sports, but golf is the one sport where a parent can be “part of the team. My dad used to caddy for me. And my mom was the go-to person and coordinator so John and I could just play golf. It helps you get involved in your kids’ life, which is so important.”

John stressed that Venturi would never take anything for teaching him, but told  John: “Just do the thing that I learned from Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, pass it on to future generations.”

John said his son Jason is now a golf coach and teacher of the game, but growing up some of John’s most enjoyable times were “playing with my son.”

At the special 15th anniversary ceremony, Carole Barker thanked the many sponsors and donors to the program, as well as First Tee coach Cheryl Pryts and Gordon Longstreet and the many other workers and volunteers who have made the past 15 years successful.

Jennifer Weiler, a vice-president of the National First Tee, lauded Carole for her efforts and said it is possible that the local group can attain a matching grant of $22,500 by raising money.

Notes: John posted a 66 in the final round of the Senior Open at Fox Chapel Country Club, Pittsburgh, Sunday to tie for 12th place. He said he will look into becoming a full-time golf announcer when he finally retires from playing. ... When John was growing up in California he once made a motorcycle commercial with a young girl. That girl later became famous as Bo Derek, the star of the movie “10.” ... Katie Ekker spoke at the ceremony about a current fund-raising project for Buhl Farm Park.

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