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Black Rock Creek club pro recipient of junior golf leadership award

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Jeff Bender (foreground) works to improve the game of Mark Donahue in a recent practice session at the Black Rock Creek driving range. Bender regularly works with golfers, including youngsters with whom he volunteers his time during the summer months.

Black Rock Creek Golf Course resident pro Jeff Bender is a strong believer that today's youths must be groomed to be tomorrow's leaders.

Towards that end, Bender is working feverishly to get the First Tee of America program up and running in the Columbia Basin area.

The Central Washington chapter of the PGA has recognized Bender for his efforts, presenting him with its Junior Golf Leader Award for the second consecutive year.

The Sunnyside golf course club pro serves as the vice president of the First Tee of Columbia Basin program. He faces an uphill challenge in getting the program up and running, considering $60,000 must be raised by the first of May to get the ball rolling this season.

Bender explained that First Tee of America requires the local organizers to have $60,000 on hand before it will provide matching funds. The deadline to have the money in the bank is May 1.

"It will cost $100,000 a year to run the First Tree program here in the Columbia Basin," Bender said.

"Right now, we haven't raised any money. But there's a philanthropist in the Tri-Cities who's strongly considering putting up the entire $60,000," said Bender.

Whether or not that pans out, the next few weeks will tell. What is known, however, is that continued support by the golfing industry will be required if the First Tee of America program is to fly here in Central Washington. Bender said local organizers are hoping the area's golf courses will step up and meet the challenge.

Fundraising ideas he's pitching to the local courses include putting up $1 for every golfer who participates in a corporate outing, as well as sponsoring golf marathons. The golfers who would participate in the marathons would secure pledges from sponsors for each hole they completed, he explained.

Currently, though, there has been little support from Bender's peers to get the First Tee program up and running here. Right now, only he, Wendy Rash of Canyon Lakes Golf Course and Chris Isaacson of the Tri-City Country Club have grabbed the bull by the horns and are working to make it a reality in 2006.

When asked why other golf course operators haven't jumped on the bandwagon, Bender is at a loss for words. Perhaps a bit embarrassed by their lack of foresight, he only shrugs his shoulders and mumbles that maybe, down the road, they'll see the benefits of getting behind today's youths and teaching them not only the game of golf, but the game of life.

"The First Tee program is about much more than just golf," Bender said. "It's taking poverty level kids and giving them the life skills they'll need to succeed in the future...while they're learning to golf.

"It's about giving back, helping kids who have a need, helping make them successful. The more kids who make it, who learn what it takes to be successful as adults...really, that benefits all of us," Bender said.

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