The John F. Byrne Golf Course in Northeast Philadelphia, a facility that had deteriorated so badly that the city planned to shut it down almost a year ago, has found new life and new energy thanks to The First Tee of Greater Philadelphia and its young participants.
The First Tee assumed operation of the property on Nov. 1, 2019, offering a place to play for residents of the community as well as the youths who are provided educational opportunities and taught values through golf by coaches in the program.
Only 15 of the nation’s 150 First Tee chapters operate golf courses, and the Philadelphia chapter operates two, having taken over management of the formerly city-owned Walnut Lane Golf Course in 2016.
“I wasn’t really gung-ho to do this, for the First Tee to run another golf course,” executive director William Hyndman V said in a recent interview. "The John Byrne golf course had been kind of run into the ground and it was just neglected. The building looked like it was going to fall down. It ended up being kind of like the perfect storm for us to take over the golf course.
“When I looked at it, you could tell there were a lot of diehard golfers there and it’s such a dense community. I felt really strongly about, from our experience at Walnut Lane, how important the public golfer is and how important having a golf facility is to the community. It’s a great way for our First Tee chapter to give back.”
The closure of Byrne on March 13 because of the coronavirus pandemic put a halt to planned repairs of the facility, but all systems were go once the course was able to reopen May 1. Members of The First Tee board reached out to companies for help with products such as golf carts and maintenance equipment, Hyndman said.
“We had learned at Walnut Lane that we can do it because we have a great board of people that helps us find people that want to volunteer or help connect us with a company that wants to assist us,” he said. “Every time I turn around, there’s somebody that wants to help. It had worked out so well at Walnut Lane, we kind of were like, ‘Well, I think we can do the same thing at John Byrne.’”
The Union League Golf Club at Torresdale, located across Grant Avenue from John F. Byrne, became a good neighbor. It sent its landscape company to rebuild all the course’s bunkers at no charge, “probably a $50,000 project,” Hyndman said. The club also provided its facility for an annual First Tee fund-raising event for five years, the first of which was held Monday, bringing in $125,000.
Another major renovation will be the clubhouse, where The First Tee will construct a classroom. The facility also will include a simulator and a putting green, with a deck in the rear that overlooks the creek. And there are opportunities for their members such as a caddie academy that recently graduated 37 boys and girls.
“We’re now placing them with local clubs,” Hyndman said. “We have internships that we do with the maintenance team. We have internships with some of the local colleges like Holy Family. We really want to utilize this facility as basically just a learning institution, and not just look at it as a golf course. I think when we pitch that to our supporters, it really resonates with them.”
The program participants appreciate the opportunities.
“I’ve played a lot of prestigious golf courses, like Aronimink,” said Julian Ciurlino of South Philadelphia, a junior at Roman Catholic High School. “Now I am provided a job while I’m in the program, so I teach younger kids. It’s going pretty good. I like teaching kids how to play golf.”
Sean Allen, 13, an eight-grader at Carver Engineering and Science from Port Richmond, has been with The First Tee for eight years. He participated on the local Junior PGA team and graduated from the caddie program.
“It keeps me active and it’s taught me respect,” Allen said. “That’s very important because it’s taught me how, if I ever want to go get a job, I need to have respect.”
Allen’s sister, 9-year-old Chayce Goldate, said she rates golf as a 9 on a scale of one to 10.
“They do a bunch of things you can do,” she said of The First Tee. “We had this big girls' golf event that I went to. We did raffles and we played golf. It was really fun.”
A newcomer to The First Tee is 17-year-old Brendan Diamond of Winchester Park, who joined the Byrne maintenance staff last May and became a First Tee participant.
“I’ve played here all my life,” said Diamond, who recently carded a 72. “I like playing with the kids and teaching them. I want to get them better, and get better myself.”
Hyndman, who became the chapter’s executive director in 2016, served 12 years in the military, eight of them on active duty with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, where he flew Blackhawk helicopters. He is the grandson of the late William Hyndman III, a two-time U.S. Senior Amateur champion and one of the greatest players in Golf Association of Philadelphia history.
The renovation of John F. Byrne has included repairs to the clubhouse windows and roof and to the bridges crossing Byberry Creek. The design firm of World Golf Hall of Fame member Ernie Els is donating the design for a new practice area.
Fund-raising has gone well. Hyndman said an anonymous donor pledged $1 million in a 2-to-1 match and the First Tee raised $500,000 in contributions. He said he feels very fortunate “that our mission of teaching youth life skills resonates with so many people,” but there’s more to it in 2020.
“I think with all that’s going on with the unrest in the country, I think there’s a lot of people that want to make a difference in their own way, and we’re one option where they can invest in the youth through The First Tee,” he said. “It’s a great way for people to make a financial contribution or get their company involved to help with our efforts and then they feel good about making a difference to set the kids up for success in the future.”
And the community also benefits. Hyndman said more than 20,000 rounds will be played this year at John F. Byrne.