With nearly 40 local kids grouped around him, PGA Tour professional Chip Beck demonstrated the finer points of putting on a green with three shots. The first shot he took missed the cup by 2 inches to the left, the second missed by about 2 inches to the right. The third one dropped in just perfectly.
It was just one of many eye-opening moments on a beautiful Wednesday morning at the Birch Ridge golf course in Soldotna that saw Beck give free lessons on the game of golf as a part of the locally funded First Tee program.
“We are trying to show people that the First Tee program needs local support,” Beck said. “Everybody thinks that it’s funded by a national organization, but it’s not. It’s the local people that make it happen.”
The First Tee program is an international youth developmental organization that helps to introduce younger people to the game of golf and its inherent values. Birch Ridge general manager Nolan Rose said having Beck make an appearance is the first step in getting the program running on a regular basis.
“He put on quite a show, he’s a pretty spectacular guy,” Rose said. “When the opportunity showed up, we jumped all over it.”
Rose said junior programs such as Hook-a-Kid-on-Golf have already proven successful, but First Tee would push the local support and participation to a whole new level.
“I think it’s hugely important because you see someone like Chip who’s been all over the world and made a life out of playing the game,” Rose said. “What’s unique about golf is that it’s a sport that you can play ‘til you’re 80, and the younger you get involved in it, the better you’ll be. You’re teaching the kids a skill that’s gonna allow them to have fun and socialize and do all those things the rest of their lives.
“When they see someone like Chip Beck, I think it just cements the thought in their mind that I can do this.”
Beck is a four-time winner on the PGA Tour, recording victories at the 1988 Los Angeles Open, the 1988 USF&G Classic, the 1990 Buick Open and the 1992 Freeport-McMoRan Golf Classic. Beck also finished runner-up at the 1993 Masters tournament, and has tied for second at the U.S. Open twice.
A three-time All-American at the University of Georgia, Beck is originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina, but currently resides in Chicago.
Beck and his wife, Karen, and daughter, Annie, have already been up to Denali National Park, where he was remarking about his up-close experience of seeing a bald eagle nesting. The 57-year-old pro said he was preparing for a fishing excursion on the Kenai River, as well.
“I’ve gotten to see what the country is like here,” Beck said. “I’ve never seen a tundra, never understood the way the trees grow, and I find it fascinating, the beautiful landscape.
“I never realized there’s so much water in Alaska. So many lakes.”
Wednesday’s stop in Soldotna was the first of a few he will be making in Alaska. The trip includes stops in Palmer, Settlers Bay in Wasilla and the Anchorage Golf Course, as well as a par-3, hole-in-one tournament at Fox Hollow Golf Course in Anchorage on Friday.
One of the points the PGA veteran impressed was that missing a shot will ultimately serve as a tool to improve one’s game, and indirectly help the individual’s further goals in life.
“The important thing for them, is they’re only limited by what they think of themselves,” Beck said. “That’s the beauty of golf. I told them, I had friends that always told me how bad a putter they were, and sure enough, after so many years, he became a very poor putter and it affected his game.
“But I’ve seen kids go from this program all the way up to working on Wall Street.”
That is what Beck is hoping to accomplish. With an 80 percent retention rate of juniors completing the program, First Tee has shown to be very successful in keeping young people on the right track to successful lives.
In addition to his autograph, Beck many times will also write the number 59 on fans’ memorabilia, which he hopes encourages players to never give up. The number 59 signifies the lowest round of golf that Beck ever played, coming in the third round of the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational. Beck is one of only six players to ever score that low in the history of the PGA Tour.
“What’s cool about it is, yeah, these kids can go for the 58,” Beck said. “One of the nice things through history for me, is that I got shirts that are older than these kids. They don’t know who Chip Beck is.
“But when they watch television and when anyone shoots 59, they’ll bring my name up, so it’s kind of kept me current with these young kids.”
One of students in the crowd Wednesday was 13-year-old Danica Schmidt, a Soldotna Middle School student. Schmidt said she’s an avid golfer who plays the sport as her primary summer activity.
“Learning chipping from him was really good,” Schmidt said. “How he could turn the 3-iron into a pitching wedge was really neat.
“It’s just pretty cool to meet him.”
Schmidt said Beck “definitely” helped to grow her interest in the sport.
Hudson Jackson, 12, a Kenai Middle School student, said the biggest thing he learned was the grip on a club.
“Just how you put your thumb on the handle,” Jackson said. “It’s a lot smoother to hit it.”
As the lesson was ending, Beck handed out paper guides that serve to improve hand position and finger points on the club, and that feature a change in color when pressure is applied.
Speaking in a consistent Southern drawl, Beck demonstrated the proper techniques of the sport over the 2 1-2 hour session, such as his explanation that keeping all body parts in the right alignment will vastly improve one’s swing.
A key point Beck made about knocking in a putt was the “1-2” method of counting, where a player will count the one on the backswing, or windup, and will count the two on the strike of the ball. Beck reminded that it is important to use a rhythm when doing so.
“He’s over here hitting a 3-wood off his knees, and rolling his putts like it’s rolling out of bed,” Rose noted. “More than anything, you just kind of sit back and watch and enjoy the show.”
Beck said he hopes to use his influence as a method of teaching. Wednesday, he repeated that “everything is attitude,” and that small changes in the game can have big results.
“What’s nice is that they can learn from a young age how to grip the club,” Beck said. “The players are getting better now because we know the grip predetermines how you swing.
“It’s so important that we know that it all comes back to the grip. It’s like learning to play the piano, if you know how to hold your hands, the game’s a lot easier.”
Overall, Wednesday’s appearance served as a steppingstone in the active involvement of the community in a sport that has so much to teach about lifetime habits.
“The owners of this place have been so generous and kind to open their golf course to these juniors,” Beck said. “We came up and we’re getting a couple of the locals involved to raise money for the First Tee. We want these young children to get a chance to get involved in golf because it helps their lives.”