First Tee Central Florida – Changing Lives Through Golf

by | May 22, 2024 | Lifestyle

An Interview with Wanda Brewer Ickes, Executive Director of the First Tee Central Florida Chapter

Most of us have heard of First Tee, a national organization that empowers kids and teens through golf. Their motto is “Building Game Changers” and their goal, to “enable kids to build the strength of character that empowers them through a lifetime of new challenges.”

But what does a First Tee Chapter really look like? How does First Tee impact young golfers and offer them golf and life skills for success in work and life? To find out the answers, I spoke with Wanda Brewer Ickes, Executive Director of the First Tee – Central Florida Chapter. Wanda shared how her childhood and work experiences prepared her for First Tee.

A Bit About Wanda


Wanda Brewer Ickes
Exec Dir, First Tee – Central Florida

Growing up, I was born on the island of O’ahu and was consumed with junior tennis. I played all but five days in a year and competed in junior and adult tournaments. School and sports were my safe places away from the daily child abuse I was enduring. I’m the youngest of three, and once my older siblings ran away from home, school saved my life when I confided in my principal. She drove me to child protection services; my parents were arrested, and I entered the foster care system. After two years with my high school diploma in hand, I aged out and was on my own at 18.

The lessons I learned from playing a sport (mental toughness regardless of life’s circumstances) remain with me and are why I’m a huge advocate of kids getting into the game—whatever sport of choice. Of course, I am biased toward golf! I also like to remind people that you never know what is going on in a child’s life.

The Road to First Tee

I lived in Hawaii until I fell in love with Brad Brewer, a pro golfer. Back in the 1980s, he was moving to Orlando to open Isleworth Country Club, and I packed up and followed him!

I learned the game backward by caddying for my husband on a secondary tour one summer. I knew the rules, etiquette, and when to pull out which club for what shot, but I had never played a round myself. However, these days were short-lived, as making it on tour and raising a family is not for the faint of heart. I returned to work, and my husband went back to work for Arnold Palmer.

Later, Brad and I worked together at the Brad Brewer Golf Academy for nearly 19 years. I loved the clients we served – golfers are very special people. Our students were smart, disciplined, and deep-thinking. Our work was so rewarding. Whether helping a teenager make their high school team, a senior receive a golf scholarship, a player earn their tour card, or a CEO reduce their stress level by having fun playing better golf, there was so much joy in helping someone make their dream come true – through golf.

Then, in late 2020, Brad didn’t feel well; a few months later, he was gone. That was a cruel year, as seven weeks later, our 33-year-old daughter was killed by a hit-and-run driver, and two months after that, I was told my lease was not being renewed at the academy. I woke up on July 2, 2022, at my usual 5 am time, instinctively grabbed my cell phone to see who was looking to book a lesson, and realized for the first time in 31 years that I did not own a business.

I lacked the mental wherewithal to start something new or decide on another franchise, so I began looking for something meaningful. I was offered a position with an organization I was very high on, but while waiting to negotiate my contract, a friend told me First Tee – Central Florida’s executive director was retiring. I looked at the job posting and felt my years running the academy and my love for our juniors truly set the stage for my role as First Tee – Central Florida’s new executive director.

Everything you Need to know about First Tee

First Tee—Central Florida is a nonprofit youth development organization that teaches life skills, strengthens character, and deepens core values through the game of golf.

The kids are taught about respecting the course by repairing their ball mark and maybe a couple of others on behalf of golfers who didn’t respect it. They’re reminded to be mindful of treading lightly on the greens to avoid making indentations. We teach them about courtesy and etiquette by avoiding walking in someone’s line, allowing those furthest from the hole to putt first, and staying still and quiet so as not to distract whomever is putting. At the end of each session, the coaches ask how the day’s lesson can be demonstrated at home and in the classroom.

At First Tee, Economic Circumstances Aren’t a Barrier to Learning Golf

First Tee is about access to the game of golf and learning to play the game affordably. For any family in need, we provide financial assistance. At our Central Florida chapter, we go one step further by providing kids and teens with sets of appropriately sized clubs so they can arrive at their classes ready to participate and have the equipment they need to practice and enjoy the game in between classes. We also trade up sets as they grow. We also provide welcome bags filled with the tools each golfer needs, such as collared shirts to wear on the course. From the start, they learn about golf’s dress code.

The Many Programs of First Tee Central Florida

When parents think of First Tee they probably have visions of 7- 10 year old girls and boys on the range. While those classes max out on the first day of registration, the kids who stay with us and become the teen faces of First Tee are the ones I am most excited about. Statistics reveal kids 10 – 14 years of age are our most vulnerable. We know if we can keep a participant in First Tee until age 14, we will most likely keep them connected through high school graduation.

We do this by inviting our participants to join our Teen Advisory Board and related activities when they enter high school. If officer positions are open, we encourage them to serve to strengthen the organization and develop leadership skills. There are quarterly events that involve speakers who share about their golf and non-golf-related careers, there are social activities on the golf course and in other settings such as bowling, and there are numerous invitations for our teens to play in organized events. These help our teens deepen their social skills.

In addition, we have a Mentee–Mentor program that got its start thanks to a grant from the Jordan Spieth Family & Friends Foundation. Here, matched adults and teens meet up as a group to share a meal, play 9-holes and enjoy conversations about school, home life, their futures, and other topics prompted by our Program Coordinator. First Tee teens who have been in our program for a period of at least one year can be hired as Youth Coaches at age 16 with a starting rate of $15 per hour to assist lead coaches with our 7 – 9-year-old classes.

Each year, the General Manager of a PGA TOUR Superstore in our program territory conducts a free Leadership Series. Our teens start by taking the Strengthsfinder assessment and then learn how to use their strengths best. At the end of the series, each teen creates a presentation shown to their peers based on an interest they may want to pursue in college. The teens who complete this Leadership Series are then nominated for experiences held nationwide to meet up with other First Tee teens to develop their leadership skills through organized events further, listening to keynote speakers, and completing group projects. The Arthur Blank Family Foundation provides all of this in partnership with PGA TOUR Superstore.

The teens who attend these opportunities can be identified by First Tee HQ as exceptional youth leaders and be awarded four-year college scholarships. One of our teens received this honor last year. In addition, thanks to a partnership with the Arnold & Winnie Palmer Foundation, our chapter began awarding college scholarships in 2023. A graduating senior is eligible to receive a 4-year scholarship. This is reassuring to families to know that as long as their student maintains a 3.0 or higher GPA, the funds continue to help offset the cost of tuition. The scholarship applies to trade and technical school programs as well.

The Proof is in the Success Stories

Matthew Large may be our official first First Tee participant in 2012 when this Central Florida chapter launched. He cheerfully shared how awesome his coach was, Coach Tom, who is now our chapter’s direct link to FT HQ. Matt recalls the goal-setting exercises as the most memorable life skill he definitely uses today, owning and operating his own auto dealership. Matthew was instrumental in our chapter securing a 15-passenger van that we had been waiting for over a year. He delivered it under budget and donated the transportation fees from across state lines and the new tag and registration fees.

Sara Rintoul enrolled in our FT program at the age of 7, the youngest age group in our golf course program. She stayed connected with us and took advantage of opportunities provided by First Tee, such as National Opportunities and a summer internship with the PGA Tour. As a student at UF, she received the first-ever Arnold & Winnie Palmer at First Tee—Central Florida Scholarship. Sara went on to do an internship with Procter & Gamble and will begin her career with them this August.

How can people become involved with First Tee?

Enroll your child, teen, or grandchild as soon as possible! The sooner a child and teen connect with the life skills curriculum, the better. We offer 32+ weeks of programs a year, and class and location information is listed on our website.

Parents most often report a noticeable increase in their child’s self-esteem and confidence. Other parents report how their children love the program and their coach compared to other activities where they grew bored and lost interest. We break down barriers of entry – the cost of the program is $85 for an 8-week program. If a family is experiencing hardship, we provide financial assistance.

If a child or teen doesn’t have the proper equipment, we provide it free of charge. We also provide a Welcome Bag that includes a collared shirt so a child can learn the dress code for going onto a golf course, tools that will be used during play, and a hat and sunglasses to keep them comfortable.

Become a Game Changer with a tax-deductible gift to help a child or teen get into the game with First Tee—Central Florida. Visit

Photos courtesy of First Tee Central Florida.


About the Author

<a href="" target="_self">Abbey Algiers</a>

Abbey Algiers

Abbey Algiers is a Wisconsin-based writer specializing in golf, golf tourism, and travel to Spain. She writes monthly features for the LPGA Women's Network and has been featured in publications, including Avid Golfer Magazine, Texas Lifestyle Magazine, and In addition, Abbey produces a twice-weekly newsletter called What I'd Rather Be Talking About and is finishing her late father's memoir, Letters to Louie. In her free time, she enjoys running and hot yoga, golfing, and traveling with her husband, Eric. For more information, visit