Categories: Stories and Features

First Tee gives teen golfer new view of life

By Bob Highfill

July 09, 2009 12:01 AM

STOCKTON – Golf will take Ryan Ortiz on an unforgettable experience later this month.

The 17-year-old senior-to-be at Weston Ranch High has been selected to participate in the Life Skills and Leadership Academy through the First Tee of San Joaquin, a program that provides golfing equipment and promotes character development to area youth.

“I never knew First Tee could give me this opportunity,” Ortiz said Wednesday during a break from practicing at Van Buskirk Park Golf Course. “I never knew golf could take me this far.”

Ortiz and 93 others from First Tee chapters around the country, as well as Ireland and Singapore, will participate in the academy from July 28 to Aug. 4 at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Each participant was nominated by his or her chapter and selected based on their achievements and answers to an application that included essays. The golfers, ages 13-17, will live in dorms, learn leadership skills, receive instruction, and meet people from different walks of life.

“I most likely will get something out of the academy to help me be a role model to someone who needs one,” said Ortiz, whose 11-year-old stepbrother, Michael, also is in the First Tee of San Joaquin. “When I was little, my dad was a big role model. I was driven by that. I want to be that for someone else.”

Ortiz lost his role model about two years ago when his father, Miguel Angel Ortiz, died from kidney failure. Though Ryan’s parents split up when he was very young, he visited his father almost every weekend in San Jose. Miguel’s death had a profound effect on Ryan.

“Right after my dad passed, I gave up on everything,” said Ortiz, who moved from Milpitas to Stockton with his mother, Nora Ortiz Abenojar, and stepfather, Meliton Abenojar, when he was in the sixth grade. “For a week, I couldn’t eat.”

Eventually, Ryan wanted to honor his father by committing himself to something positive. He chose golf, the game he was exposed to while in the eighth grade by his stepfather, but had not previously taken seriously. Ryan joined the First Tee of San Joaquin at Van Buskirk and now plays almost every day. Last season, Ryan was the top player on the Weston Ranch golf team with scores consistently in the low 40s for nine holes.

“All of his sadness is gone when he plays golf,” Nora said. “He forgets about all of that when he’s playing.”

Ryan not only has embraced the instruction provided by the First Tee, he has applied the program’s nine core values (honesty, integrity, sportsmanship, confidence, responsibility, perseverance, courtesy and judgment) to his life. The most meaningful to him is perseverance.

“I was probably extremely immature before my dad died,” Ryan said. “If I worked on something and if it didn’t turn out the way I wanted, I’d give it up. In golf, you have to practice and if you do, you’ll see results.”

Meliton has seen the results.

“His behavior has become more mature since he’s been attached to this organization,” said Meliton, who works for New United Motor Manufacturing Industries in Fremont. “He’s becoming so active and doing much better through sports. I know he has big dreams.”

Ryan hopes to play golf at Delta College and perhaps earn a scholarship to a four-year university. His experience in Oregon certainly will motivate him to follow his dreams.

Contact sports editor Bob Highfill at (209) 546-8282 or bhighfill@recordnet.com

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