Tom Loegering was the CEO of a struggling golf course. As a board member of the Peoria Education Foundation, the Sun City resident came into contact with students and families struggling to get by.
Five years ago, a setup linking these two groups in a mutually beneficial way seemed far-fetched. But the path was on Mr. Loegering’s GPS.
“I have a golf course that is not doing good, so how I figured how can I get my business to do well so I can help in the community?” Mr. Loegering said.
He founded Golf Program in Schools Inc. in 2015, starting with students in ninth grade at Peoria High School. Now the 501(c)(3) program has grown to serve fifth- through ninth-graders all seven PUSD high schools and a total of 36 campuses in nine local school districts.
The program rotates between PUSD elementary schools. Mr. Loegering said GPS was most recently at Sky View Elementary and will start the next school year at Heritage Elementary.
In the first four years, he said, 26,346 kids have taken up the sport through this program.Lessons take place during regular PE classes — beginning with Peoria High teacher Teresa Fuller — and gives students the opportunity to learn golf basics, grip, posture and swing with no cost to the student or school. Mr. Loegering said five days of lessons take place in the gym with foam balls used for practice.
Before beginning the program, his years on the PEF board informed Mr. Loegering of the participation barriers and hardships faced by some families in the Peoria High School community.
“I figured out that the kids have to deal with a lot more than what we see when we drive around,” Loegering said.
The foundation does not contribute to GPS in any way, or vice versa, stated PUSD director of communications and public relations Danielle Airey in an email.
The district partners with the GPS program.
“He came to us with the golf idea about five years ago. At the time it was a hope and a dream and I am so thrilled we were able to connect him with our high schools so he could bring the program to life,” Ms. Airey stated.
At the time Sun City Country Club was one of many courses nationwide dealing with the financial impact of declining participation in the sport. The National Golf Foundation tracks rounds played and the number of players.
After a 2004 peak of 30 million people playing a round of golf in the United States, participation dipped each of the next 13 years. The first signs of growth appeared in the 2018 figures, which estimated a slight increase to 24.2 million people playing.
Another NGF study — one that labeled 14.7 million people in the US who didn’t play golf in 2018 as “very interested” in playing golf on a golf course — formed a basis of Mr. Loegering’s new program.
His theory was that youth golf programs like First Tee, PGA Jr Golf are excellent … for kids who are ready and families that are financially able. The key to start breaking down barriers to golf was in local schools, since the sport was not something these students could “pick up and play” at home.
Every elementary school in the Dysart Unified School District takes part in the First Tee of Phoenix program, district athletic director Jim Dean said. He said he has not had talks with Mr. Loegering about the GPS program.
Mr. Loegering said the program is at one Dysart school right now, El Mirage Elementary. If the program received grant money to expand, GPS could find its way to other Dysart schools.
“Yes, Dysart is one that we will be expanding with very soon,” Mr. Loegering stated in an email.
Another foundation piece of GPS is the educational pathways it can open up. Mr. Loegering said hundreds of college golf scholarships for girls went unapplied for.
“The whole idea is to get families together. As the kids gain interest, they could be in line for scholarships,” Mr. Loegering said.
The theory is to start younger kids in the sport. Some may develop educational opportunities directly from golf, while others can improve their scholastic standing and pick up skills for life from the game.
“One of the best things about this program is that it provides opportunities for our students. School is for so much more than reading, writing and mathematics. Peoria Unified is committed to shaping the whole child and that means access to programs where our students can hone those skills we know they’ll need beyond high school, such as critical thinking, communication, collaboration and problem-solving,” Ms. Airey stated. “Introducing students to the game of golf is a fantastic way for them to build these skills and further prepares them for post-secondary success. We are beyond thrilled to partner with GPS on this program and introduce the next generation to the game.”
After the on-campus lessons students are invited to attend a field trip to Sun City Country Club. Students have access to course amenities to learn and practice chipping, putting and driving. Instructors teach golf course etiquette — courtesy and respect for themselves, other students and other golfers.
When students complete the five day program in their PE class, they get free golf at Sun City Country Club until they graduate high school — if accompanied by a paying adult. And that is where the fiscal sustainability model of this program for the country club begins to kick in.
GPS hosts a free monthly Family Fun Day. Family members learn or observe golf basics and, hopefully, a way to interact with their kids outside of a screen. These events are on summer hiatus but will resume at 8 a.m. Sept. 9.
“How would you like to have four hours with your child in a social media-free zone?” Mr. Loegering asked.
Some of the material he presented on the program stated that GPS sponsors the free family days to promote The GPS Golf Academy, which is the next step on the GPS Path. The academy is an introduction to golf to family members and a continuation of the school program at prices Mr. Loegering said are more reasonable than comparable programs.
Academy lessons cost $15 per hour, which he said is based more on typical child care rates than typical golf lesson. Private lessons are $40 per hour.
This setup also removes another budgetary obstacle to play.
“You don’t have to buy golf clubs, bags or balls,” Mr. Loegering said.
His materials on the program stated that Sun City Country Club saw an 18 percent revenue growth in 2018 over 2017 as well as a 17 percent increase in food and beverage sales. Eventually, the goal is to spread the GPS program model at schools outside of country clubs at community golf courses across the United States.
The more immediate aim is to double its size at home.Mr. Loegering said GPS is cleared for 133 schools in the West Valley, but can only serve 36 with its current staff. To grow, Mr. Loegering has applied for a grant from the Tohono O’odham Nation.
“We need a second teaching team to work 36 weeks introducing 10,000 kids to golf. Their pay plus taxes will be about $33,000 each” Mr. Loegering said. “We have the ability to supply all overhead to introduce 20,000 total students each year, paid for by our founder.”
If the grant comes through, GPS Golf Academy Scott Rutter will be at the controls of its expansion. A current player at Kellis High School will assist Rutter with the academy in the coming months.
“Scott Rutter is building up the academy. The main thing we do is try to make it fun for kids,” he said.
There are avenues for students and parents who want to play but cannot afford regular $15 lessons. The 2019 version of the program’s annual charity golf event will be on Nov. 16 at the country club.Mr. Loegering also raised money for GPS on a motorcycle ride through the 48 contiguous states, Western Canada and Alaska.
He received a certificate of appreciation for outstanding contribution to public education from the Peoria Unified School District in 2015, and a non-profit collaboration award in 2017 from the Peoria Education Foundation.
In 2018, Leadership West named Mr. Loegering its non-profit leader of the year. Earlier this year, Congresswoman Debbie Lesko recognized him for striving to improve West Valley communities.
“Our teachers and staff are remarkable, but we cannot do what we do without strong community partners to come along side us and support our students and schools. I can’t say enough about the impact Tom has had on our district. He is an incredible example of how partnerships enhance our work and benefit not only our students, but the entire community,” Ms. Airey stated. “There are a myriad of opportunities to engage our retired community members in our work and the it doesn’t mean you have to launch your own nonprofit. The expertise from our wise and experienced community members is invaluable and we can always match an individual’s skill set with a need in our schools.”
Golf Program in Schools is based at Sun City Country Club, 9433 N. 107th Ave. For information, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.golfps.org.