CVIndependent

Thu12122019

Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

A while back, local media went crazy over Braden Bernaldo, a 14-year-old Palm Desert High School sophomore.

In July, the golf prodigy was selected as one of just 78 youth members, boys and girls, of the nationwide First Tee organization to play in the annual Juniors Competition—and that meant Bernaldo was going to head to the 2019 Pure Insurance Championship. The tournament is a regular tour stop on the PGA Champions senior schedule. Each of the junior golfers, as they’re known, would be paired in competition with one of the senior PGA pros for three rounds of play.

“One early morning late in this past July, we had to wake up at 4 a.m.,” Bernaldo said when the Independent sat down with him recently at the First Tee of the Coachella Valley’s headquarters in Palm Desert. The reason: The announcement of the junior participants was being made on Morning Drive, the show that airs on the Golf Channel from 7 to 9 a.m. Eastern time.

How did Bernaldo react when his name was announced?

“I was standing there in shock,” Bernaldo said. “I couldn’t move. It was unbelievable knowing that I was going to attend a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was very grateful. My parents, on the other hand, were jumping and, like, screaming and waking up the rest of my siblings.”

So Bernaldo headed off to the legendary Poppy Hills Golf Club and Pebble Beach Golf Links courses in Northern California for the tournament, which took place Sept. 27-29. And how did things go?

At first … they went really well for Braden and his pro partner, Tommy Armour III. After the initial two rounds, Bernaldo had distinguished himself by shooting a 65 at Poppy Hills on Friday, and a 66 at the par-72 Pebble Beach course on Saturday. He and Armour survived the cut easily, and were in a tie for sixth place heading into the final round on Sunday, at Pebble Beach.

Alas, on Sunday, the wheels came off—and they wound up in 23rd place. What went wrong?

“I don’t know,” Bernaldo said thoughtfully. “I guess it was a combination of our mistakes not fitting in the right spots. Since it was best ball, he would have a couple of blow-up holes, and I would, too. … It was bad. He didn’t make any birdies in the final round, whereas I made four. But all those bogies that he made and I made, they covered up all those birdies, and we shot over par.” That final round score was 73, sliding Bernaldo into 23rd—last among the junior players who made the cut.

But golf—and life, some would say—are not all about finishing in first with a trophy in hand. Proponents of the First Tee program believe that maxim to be true. The goal is to imbue each of the talented youngsters with an appreciation of, and the tools to practice, the organization’s nine core values: honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment. Bernaldo said those valuable character traits came in handy during his weekend at Pebble Beach.

“Having it be a struggle out there, and barely playing the courses (before), took perseverance,” he said. “And respect (came into play), having to fill in your divots, or placing the flag on the fringe so it doesn’t ruin the greens. All sorts of things just went together. Communication was a part of going there, and building new relationships with people. To this day, us juniors still are in contact with each other and hold group chats. It’s really awesome. I also made other relationships with adults I met up there, and I’m keeping in contact with them through email.”

What are the best memories he has taken away from the experience?

“In the final round, (it was) hole 17, obviously the most iconic par-3,” Bernaldo said. “The pin was on the left side of the green, and the wind was blowing into us. I just took a knock-down 5 iron, hit it within 6 feet (of the pin), and made birdie, fortunately.

“Things went downhill on 18, but … ,” he added with a laugh.

The off-course events impressed him as well.

“The evening activities that they set up for the juniors were unbelievable experiences,” he said. “Especially the pairings-reveal with all of the professionals and their family members there. We got to interact with them and other juniors, and that was amazing.”

Bernaldo said he’s anxious to get back out on a course, since he has been laboring hard to catch up on school work since his return from Pebble Beach. He high hopes for the Palm Desert High School golf team this upcoming season, which begins in February.

“From the team aspect, the whole goal for us was building our relationships between each other. In previous years, (the team members) just weren’t strong with each other, connection-wise,” Bernaldo said. “But we were, and I believe that’s why we had many successes last year.”

Published in Features

The Coachella Valley is a place where retired celebrities, in some ways, are taken for granted. Among us are retired movie and television stars, business tycoons, writers, NASA scientists and sports professionals—including Shirley Spork, one of the 13 original founding members of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), and a renowned sports-education professional.

Spork, 90, is a long-time resident of Palm Desert. The red-haired girl from a working-class family would go on to, through personal determination, break ground and help make a lasting contribution for women in a sport that had never been friendly to females.

Spork was born and raised in Detroit, the only child of parents who did not play golf. At one point in her early childhood, the family lived next to a golf course.

“There was nothing much to do in the neighborhood,” she says. “I saw the boys caddying, but I wanted to play the game.”

Spork’s first club was a putter she bought for a dollar she had earned by selling, back to golfers, the golf balls that had gone into the water between her home and the course.

“I was about 11 when I was constantly going onto the course, and the ranger kept chasing me off,” recalls Spork. “I sold the used balls to some of the golfers, and they got to know me. Their ticket to play was supposed to get punched after the first nine holes, but sometimes it wasn’t, and they’d give me their ticket so I could play as if I had paid.

“I read about people like Babe (Didrikson) and Patty (Berg) and thought, ‘If they can do that, maybe I can do that,’” Spork says about the female golf pioneers. “I bought that putter because it looked good among the other clubs in the $1 bin. The guys all laughed at me.”

Spork actually built a small green so she could practice: “I cleared a space, dug a hole, stuck a flag in it and played by myself!” She later got some used irons from the friendly golf pro, and her uncle found a golf bag someone had thrown away.

“I wanted to compete in junior golf, and the Detroit Free Press said the PGA was giving free lessons. Whoever showed the most improvement got a $10 gift certificate. I won, and that got me my first distance club, a Louise Suggs driver. I was 12.

“Lots of girls came from families that belonged to country clubs, and they would compete in the city championships. I wanted to join the Women’s Professional Golf Association (an LPGA precursor), which was the only game in town at that time, but I was still in high school. The WPGA only lasted about three years, and then it ran out of money. There were no pro tournaments for women back then.

“Women now compete much as the men do, even if they don’t make as much money, but back then, women made their way as trainers and testers, and a lot of time was spent trying to find companies that would sponsor tournaments.”

Spork has documented her story in a book, From Green to Tee, released earlier this year.

“I call it that, because I actually started on the green, with that putter, but I made it to the tee,” she says.

The book includes stories about Spork’s rise to prominence in the game, and it also sets out the history of women’s golf and the challenges faced by the women who were trailblazers.

Spork graduated from Eastern Michigan University, where she received a teaching degree.

“We had moved back into the city when I was in high school, and the lady upstairs had a daughter in teacher’s college,” she says. “I didn’t want to go. I wanted to be a golf pro. But I went, and I studied physical education.”

She also competed in and won tournaments, and was honored not by her school’s women’s physical education department, but by the men’s.

“When I finished school, I started teaching, because my parents had sacrificed to send me to college, but my heart wasn’t really in it,” Spork says. “My mom said, ‘You should be doing what you want to do, not what we want you to do.’ I spent many years teaching part of the year and golfing whenever I could.”

Spork’s educational background served her well in establishing the LPGA Teaching Division, dedicated to working with young people, and educating golf pros about how to teach effectively.

“People may not realize that just because they play well, that doesn’t mean they can teach others,” Spork says. “When it comes to women golfers, we have to educate about smaller hands, less height, less body strength, club length—things like that. And you have to teach people how to teach; it takes five years to become a Class A teacher.”

From the time when she was young and wheedling her way onto golf courses, Spork has met many golfers who helped her find opportunities to get more time on the links—and to find her way into tournaments and jobs.

“Golfers I met could see that I was going to be a golfer,” she says. “Some of them helped me get privileges at country clubs so I could qualify for city and state tournaments. Sometimes I had to go in the back door. I did whatever I could to be able to play.”

Spork’s career includes tournaments around the world, corporate sponsorships, helping design golf courses, being a golf pro at country clubs, and teaching generations of golfers.

The second annual Shirley Spork Pro-Am Golf Tournament was held at Palm Valley Country Club this past April, with the proceeds supporting The First Tee, a youth-development organization introducing golf and its values to young people through in-school and afterschool programs.

“I was never a great player,” Spork says, with charming modesty. “When I started, there were so few women who stood up for themselves.”

However, Shirley Spork did stand up for herself—and it paid off.

Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays at noon on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday at CVIndependent.com.

Published in Know Your Neighbors

The sun is descending behind the San Jacinto Mountains as the classroom portion of the daily First Tee of the Coachella Valley program gets under way in the pro shop/education center of the First Tee golf course in Palm Desert.

“I show respect for my surroundings by picking up trash wherever I see it,” declares James, a member of the “Player 3” group (ages 7 to 9). He is addressing his fellow First Tee students, a few parents, lead instructor Jeff Harrison and LPGA-USGA program director Amy Anderson.

This group is learning how to incorporate into their daily existence the “nine core life values” emphasized by the program. Instilling these character traits in each and every participant is the primary mission of the First Tee staff here in Coachella Valley—and all of the chapters worldwide.

“We want to make them good citizens,” says executive director Glenn Miller. “I don’t really care if they become great golfers.”

The First Tee international organization lists the United States Golf Association, the PGA, the PGA Tour, the LPGA and the Masters Tournament as founding partners. So wouldn’t it be correct to assume that another underlying objective is to develop the next Tiger Woods or Stacy Lewis to represent U.S. golf on the international stage? “No, I don’t think that’s the case,” insists Miller. “Of all the young people who come through our program, I’d say about 99.9 percent of them will never be great golfers. Fair to good, probably, if they keep playing. But the next Tiger Woods? Well, it could happen, but that’s not what our program is focused on developing.”

That focus is on teaching students the appreciation of, and adherence to, the values of honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, respect, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment in every aspect of an individual’s life. In addition to these basic “nine core life values,” the Coachella Valley chapter has incorporated instruction about “nine healthy habits.”

“We’re trying to get our kids to eat better, walk more and do things that are healthy for them,” Miller says, “get them to think about eating apples, grapes, oranges and yogurt rather than only potato chips and soda.”

In order to promote the budding self-esteem of committed participants, at the end of each school semester, the First Tee national office honors all participants who present a school report card showing an A/B level of achievement by presenting them with a certificate for their hard work and perseverance.

“Our First Tee team focuses heavily on the A/B scholar classroom accomplishments of our youngsters,” says Miller. “We’re looking for transformation in how they conduct themselves. We get input from the parents who tell us how much more reliable, confident and poised their child becomes, and we get great satisfaction from that feedback.”

First Tee was founded in 1997; Coachella Valley’s chapter started up in 2007. Palm Desert City Council members Dick Kelly (who passed away in 2010) and Robert Spiegel (who still serves on the council) were the catalysts in bringing First Tee to the valley under the supervision of the Desert Recreation District. They supervised the ownership transfer of the current 27-hole, par-three First Tee home golf course on Sheryl Avenue, just off Cook Street, from the city of Palm Desert to the Desert Recreation District. The program’s reach into the community has grown rapidly since then.

“We have about 1,350 student participants enrolled in all phases of our program in 2013,” Miller says. “They range in age from 4 years old to 18. We have four full-time instructors and about 150 volunteers who give regularly and generously of their time and effort. In each of our sessions, which are categorized by age and learning accomplishment, we have one instructor or volunteer present for every four students.”

The First Tee depends on community support for almost all of its operational funding as well. “The First Tee national organization contributes roughly $20,000 per year to our chapter,” Miller says. “So we rely almost completely on our fundraising success. The H.N. and Frances C. Berger Foundation was one of the first supporters to come to the table. Also, the Houston Family Foundation and the First Foundation have been strong contributors.

“Most of the funds that come in are utilized for equipment and scholarships for a lot of our youth,” Mr. Miller continued. “We don’t turn anyone away—we just don’t. We want to make First Tee available to any kid in the valley who would like to learn golf and those core values that come with it. The challenge is: How can we help them succeed in life?”

Assistance comes from several of the golf and country clubs in Coachella Valley. “The people at the Springs Country Club have been a godsend for us!” says Miller. “All together, they’ve raised some $200,000 through their fundraising tournaments for the First Tee. Our kids have access to play at the Classic Club, Desert Winds in 29 Palms and the Annenberg Estate in Rancho Mirage.

“The Marrakesh Country Club has welcomed our kids, and this Dec. 14, they’re staging their inaugural First Tee Golf and Putting Tournament benefit. And next Feb. 15, for the first time, we’ll be staging our annual First Tee Benefit Golf Tournament and fundraiser at the Bermuda Dunes Country Club.”

Given the First Tee’s strict policy that its students demonstrate the core values of honesty, integrity and responsibility at all times, what is the official First Tee stance on the use of mulligans during a round of golf?

Miller pauses for a second. He then diplomatically replies, “Mulligans are very good for fundraisers.”

For more information on the First Tee of the Coachella Valley, visit www.thefirstteecoachellavalley.org, or call 760-779-1877. Memberships are $120 per year, although discounts and scholarships are available based on income.

Below: First Tee of the Coachella Valley executive director Glenn Miller: “Of all the young people who come through our program, I’d say about 99.9 percent of them will never be great golfers. … That’s not what our program is focused on developing.”

Published in Features