Rob Fong recalled a conversation he had a few years ago with Tom Morton, the President of the Morton Golf Foundation and the PGA Director of Player Performance for Morton Golf.
They were talking one day about junior golf and some of the programs that are offered for youth players.
“Tom was asking me, for my opinion, on how they could expand The First Tee offerings at Haggin Oaks,” said Fong, who served on the Sacramento City Council for eight years, from 2004 to 2012. “These golf programs use the game of golf to teach the game of life, and are very strong. Golf can really open up a whole new world to people who might otherwise never know that those basics existed.”
Fong had a question for Morton, a PGA member and the Vice President of Player Development for Morton Golf who is on the ownership team at Morton Golf.
“All of these golf programs for kids are always based at a golf course. I said, ‘What if we did something completely not at a golf course, in an underserved community, where kids could just kind of get themselves there? Are there any models, where you actually make the facility at a school, in a neighborhood, so that neighborhood kids could just walk there or ride their bikes? They don’t need parents to drop them off and monitor them. In other words, sort of bring the services to the community, instead of having the community find the services,’ ” said Fong.
“(Morton) was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a great idea.’ ”
Fong and Morton, a Board Member of The First Tee of Greater Sacramento from 2004 to 2010, located one of those facilities – The First Tee of San Francisco’s Learning Center at Visitacion Valley Middle School, located in the Sunnydale neighborhood. The facility, which opened in 2009, features a driving range and practice green.
“At First Tee, kids and teens are learning to play golf along with life lessons and leadership skills. And it’s making a difference. Our programs are having a positive impact on participants, their families and their communities,” the organization reports on its website, www.firstteesanfrancisco.org.
Fong and Morton visited The First Tee of San Francisco facility – the only one of its kind in the country.
“This is a place for kids to go and learn things,” said Fong. “I said, ‘Let’s do one of those in Sacramento. Let’s do the second one in the country.’ That’s how the idea started.”
It’s no longer an idea.
Thanks to the support of the Morton Golf Foundation – which “funds programs offering a healthy outdoor recreational environment that stresses the building of lasting personal relationships while seamlessly instilling life’s core values for the youth, disabled, and under-served communities of Sacramento,” according to its website, mortongolffoundation.org – a golf and life skills center is planned for the Hiram Johnson High School campus in Sacramento.
“I kind of cooked it up when I was talking to (Morton),” said Fong, a 1977 McClatchy High School-Sacramento graduate, who went to college at UC Berkeley, graduating in 1981 with a degree in political science.
The golf and life skills center is a $150,000 project, with the facility to feature hitting stations, chipping areas, a putting green, sand traps and nets. It will be set up similar to a driving range, in a stadium concept.
The project has received $50,000 from the Morton Golf Foundation, which is providing its assistance and support.
Fong is on the Morton Golf Foundation, working in fund development. The Morton Golf Foundation provides support for The First Tee of Greater Sacramento, a chapter that began in 1983, offering programs for both boys and girls, ages 3 to 18, at 11 different locations in the area.
“We raise money every year, to give back to the community, to the golf community, serving the underserved, and it’s really great,” said Fong. “It’s a labor of love for everyone, that’s for sure.”
Students at Hiram Johnson High – a CIF Sac-Joaquin Section member school which plays in the Greater Sacramento League – aren’t the only ones who will be able to use the complex. It will also be available to the community around Johnson to use.
Organizers of the project expect to break ground on the facility during the first quarter of 2021, said Fong. Hiram Johnson is in the Sacramento City Unified School District.
“We’ve been working on it conceptually for a long time. But we finally really got traction and we’re very close to breaking ground and getting the facility built,” said Fong, who has his own business, RKF Consulting, where he works as a consultant and a lobbyist.
“It’s going to be open for all the kids in the community, sort of surrounding Hiram Johnson. Elementary school kids, middle school kids, high school kids. It’s going to be an after-school program and a summer program, so that kids can go there and learn golf and learn about the game of life,” said Fong.
“We’re working very closely with the school district to make sure we’re doing everything right. The school district is actually partnering with us on this. They’re helping to give us some money. They’re working with us, so it’s a real collaboration.
“The thing will get built. It won’t take that long. Depending on the pandemic, we hope to be open and running by spring or summer.”
Fong said he approached Patrick Kennedy, currently a Sacramento County Supervisor representing District 2 and a school board member at the time, about the project a few years ago.
“He loved the idea and he’s been working with us on it ever since as well,” said Fong.
The golf and life skills center will be staffed by adults and counselors, said Fong, adding that classroom space will also be made available for the students. Computers are also planned for the students to be able to use. Organizers will be looking for golf equipment to be donated once the program is up and going.
“We’re going to be using the game of golf to really help kids be better at the game of life,” said Fong. “It really is a great game for teaching the game of life.”
Fong hosted an event, the second annual Capital Cup, on Sept. 25, at William Land Golf Course, that raised $80,000 – all of it going to the golf and life skills center. The two-person team scramble style-event in a match play format featured eight Sacramento City and eight Sacramento County elected officials in matches. It’s an annual City vs. County event, with proceeds to be used to pay for staff for the golf and life skills center.
The City team won for the second year in a row, three matches to one.
“We’re doing that every year for this project through the Morton Golf Foundation,” said Fong.
Fong went to UC Davis’ King Hall School of Law. He worked as an attorney for many years.
He was elected as Vice Mayor on the Sacramento City Council in 2006.
He was on the Sacramento City Unified School District Board of Trustees for six years, from 1998 to 2004, and was Board President from 2003 to 2004.
Marty James is a freelance writer who makes his home in Napa. He retired on June 4, 2019, after spending 40 years as a sports writer, sports editor and executive sports editor for the Napa Valley Register, a daily newspaper in Napa County. He is a 1979 graduate of Sacramento State and a member of the California Golf Writers & Broadcasters Association. He was inducted into the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Hall of Fame in 2016.