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Local Firm Aspires to SNAG Young Golfers

Accomplished professional Suzy Whaley and local pro George DeVita establish new company to place golf on the agenda for schools' phys-ed curriculum

Many children saunter across fields at Fisher Meadows and Tunxis Mead with passion for soccer, while others relish in the age-old sensation of bashing baseballs come springtime or take to the basketball courts in the winter.

The phenomena obliged Farmington Woods golf pro George DeVita, of Canton, and Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) professional Suzy Whaley, of Farmington, to ask, “Why not golf?”

Their answer was to start a company called PE2Tee, a method of introducing children and their parents to golf through elementary school physical education programs by using colorful, age-appropriate equipment produced by an Oklahoma-based company called SNAG, Starting New at Golf. Under the initiative, they train physical education teachers to inaugurate golf instruction into the curriculum.

“Kids are used to learning sports from their PE teachers, not a professional,” Whaley said.

DeVita, the girls varsity golf coach at Farmington High, and Whaley, the first woman ever to participate in a PGA tournament, have been working with children in the Farmington school system on a less formal basis for three years. They are in the process of introducing their strategy to more districts in the greater Hartford area.

“I think we’re at an exciting stage,” said Whaley, who gained automatic berth into the Greater Hartford Open in 2003 by winning the Connecticut PGA Section Championship and earned international acclaim as the first woman to qualify for a PGA event since Babe Zaharias 58 years earlier.

“George and I have dabbled in it and it’s really started to gain some traction,” she said.

Their multifaceted objective is to foster interest in a game people can play over the course of a lifetime, encourage parental interaction as a dynamic for family accord and increase the cash flow for local courses and other golf-oriented businesses.

“We’re trying to drive kids from the school districts to the golf courses,” said DeVita, a 1993 Farmington High graduate who went on to earn a degree in child development and education from Connecticut College. Avon-based Farmington Woods has already gained some new members due to the program and Westwoods, Farmington’s municipal course, could also benefit from PE2Tee, according to DeVita.

“It’s a vessel, like a funnel. We’re getting it going as a company as a viable way to give back to schools, not only with golf instruction but to develop golfers and to invigorate them to go to facilities that are struggling.”

DeVita and Whaley have addressed school administrators’ financial concerns through fundraising and seeking grants to subsidize the program. The Connecticut Section PGA Foundation provided a grant for four kits, one of which went to Farmington High, another to Simsbury and one to Westwoods. Parents can also adopt a school, she said.

 “We’re going to raise money for whatever school system wants a golf unit. We’ll help them fundraise. The school obviously has to help us as well to get the [SNAG] kits,” DeVita said, who noted that he and Whaley have also donated their money and time. They also enlist SNAG to reduce rates for its $3,000 kits that include clubs and colorful accessories to accentuate the skills needed to master the sport, he said.

Through PE2Tee, Whaley said they want to dispel the notion that golf is a rich person’s sport.

“We want to manage that affordability perception,” she said. “George and I are all about that. There are facilities in Connecticut that cost less than going to the movies with your family. The perception is they’re very expensive but they’re not. Some of the daily-fee facilities are really a bargain.”

The sport engenders family fun and encourages children to push the video games and smart phones aside and enjoy exercise, said Whaley, whose husband, Bill is the general manager and PGA Director of Golf at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell.

DeVita and Whaley envision golf becoming a youth team sport with leagues just like the existing cultural popularity of travel soccer and basketball. They both want to “build up people who are passionate about golf,” said Whaley, who golfed for the University of North Carolina on an athletic scholarship and majored in economics.

“If we can make it a transitional step like every other sport we teach in school, golf becomes less intimidating, it becomes more fun,” said Whaley, who is ranked among the top 50 teachers in America by Golf Digest.

“Kids are used to that team atmosphere like lacrosse and soccer so they’ll be on a team, in a little league, by the time they’re ready to go to the golf course.”

Whaley said that some children transition from their program to First Tee, an international initiative that promotes nine core values including sportsmanship and integrity to youth through golf.

“The industry is finally working in synch together,” she said.

Whaley and DeVita are also committed to putting more girls on local tees and greens.

“We’re trying to grow the game and I’m obviously passionate about girls,” said Whaley, who has two talented daughters in Jennifer, 17, who will play golf at Quinnipiac University in the fall, and Kelly, 14, who is the 2011 Connecticut Amateur champion and the state’s PGA junior champion. “I have a soft spot in my heart that I want more girls playing golf and we allow scholarships to go untaken every single year.”

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