Local Teen is Up to Par
By Alex Cantatore
When Mabel Wong was 10, her mother saw a poster at work. It advertised a new youth golf program, The First Tee of Central Valley, which promised to teach its students valuable life skills — and how to play the game, of course.
Eight years later, Wong, of Oakdale, is now one of the nation’s best young golfers.
Of course, Wong wasn’t always a golf pro. When Wong and her brother Danny were first enrolled in The First Tee, she didn’t know a birdie from a dogleg.
“I had no idea what golf was,” Wong said.
She clearly remembers that first lesson. Wong was on the practice putting green at Modesto Municipal Golf Course — she points to the grass, just steps from where we speak — learning the very basics.
“I was holding the club like a baseball bat,” Wong said. “I swung so hard, and the ball went flying across the course.”
But over time Wong and her brother learned the game of golf, and they fell in love with The First Tee program. Before long they were making the lengthy drive from Oakdale two or three times a week, just to practice and learn.
The First Tee of Central Valley became their community, their home. It was where the Wongs’ friends and mentors were. And as the Wongs grew up, they became mentors themselves.
The local First Tee program is in its 12th year, reaching more than 600 kids at its clinics and thousands more through after school outreach programs. Nationwide, The First Tee is in its 28th year, having reached more than 10.5 million participants.
The First Tee of Central Valley is one of the nation’s best chapters. It’s been recognized by the national organization for its excellence, both in teaching golf and valuable life skills; each lesson uses the game of golf to teach core values like honesty, integrity, and courtesy.
Through The First Tee, Wong has had a number of amazing golf experiences. To name just one, she’ll soon be flying to Hilton Head Island, S.C., to participate in a prestigious golf academy.
And before long, Wong will play in the inaugural The First Tee Par 3 National Championship in Richmond, Va. She was one of just 32 players selected for the tournament from 180 The First Tee chapters nationwide, following an arduous selection process requiring community service, letters of recommendation, and three essays.
Through those experiences, and the life skills training, Wong has gained a focus she never had before. “Before First Tee, I ever had much of a goal,” Wong said.
Now, Wong’s goal is clear: To join the LPGA Tour, the professional women’s golf league.
For most golfers, this would be an unattainable goal. But Wong is not “most golfers.”
She won the 2011 and 2013 Nor Cal Players Championships. She medaled in the Cal Girls State Junior League. In 2012, Wong was ranked 9th in the world in her age group.
Just a week before our interview, Wong competed at a U.S. Women’s Open qualifier, facing 100 women for one of two spots in the tournament. She led after scoring a 71 in the first round, but notched a 75 in the second round to miss the U.S. Open by a single stroke.
Oh, that’s after staying up until 5 a.m. the night before, attending Oakdale High School’s grad night at Disneyland.
“That’s my excuse,” Wong says with a laugh.
Wong is following the steps on her “goal ladder.” It’s a technique from First Tee’s life skills program that turns an abstract dream into a concrete, achievable goal, with a series of steps to get there.
Wong’s next step is playing NCAA Division I Golf at the University of San Francisco. She hopes to play for the NCAA Championship, either with her team or as an individual.
Wong was recruited by more than 100 NCAA golf programs. She had her pick of colleges, but went with USF, in part, because of the team’s home course.
“We get to play at the Olympic Club, so that’s pretty awesome,” Wong said.
But more important in Wong’s decision was staying local, so she could come back and see her family at The First Tee.
“Mabel is an excellent role model and mentor for our younger kids,” said Cathy Mendoza, Executive Director for The First Tee of Central Valley. “It’s magic for these kids to hear how far Mabel has gone.”
Wong knows her next step will be even harder. All the players are great, so mental toughness will be very important. “Every stroke is going to cost you,” Wong says, pausing for just a second. “But I know that I can get through it.”
For more information on The First Tee of the Central Valley, visit the firstteecentralvalley.or