In a recent highlight of her high school golfing career, eleventh-grader Izzy Stepanek attended the Nature Valley First Tee Open golfing competition Sept. 13-18 in Pebble Beach, Cal.
The first tournament of its kind, the Nature Valley First Tee Open is a collaboration between the best professional and high school golfers in the nation. Eighty-one Professional Golf Association (PGA) Tour Champion players are paired with 81 junior golfers from around the country, ages 15 to 18. All proceeds from the tournament go toward The First Tee, a nonprofit organization with local chapters across the country that aims to help children and teenagers gain practical life and leadership skills through golf. “When you get higher up in the rankings of the chapter, the first tee provides national opportunities to meet other kids across the country. The chapter directors really push for the older kids to apply,” Stepanek said.
Stepanek said that she did not anticipate being accepted to the tournament, knowing that a few other older golfers from her local chapter were applying as well. In order to be selected as a junior player, applicants like Stepanek must be a member of a local The First Tee chapter and submit an extensive application that includes essays, a golf resume, an extracurricular resume, high school transcripts and two letters of recommendation. This year, over 200 applications were received and finalists were selected by a panel of First Tee supervisors from the national and local levels, as well as trustees who have donated to the event.
In regards to Stepanek’s performance leading to the opportunity to play at the Nature Valley First Tee Open, Jon Bullas, Stepanek’s personal golf coach, said, “Izzy has improved a lot. I’ve been working with her a little over two or three years now. She’s very good. This year she has really, really turned the corner and started playing a lot better.”
During the event, golfers spent the first three days in practice rounds in preparation for the competition. The later three days were spent in competition on both the Pebble Beach and Poppy Hills golf courses. Among golfers, Pebble Beach is world-renowned for being one of the most prestigious and competitive golf courses in both the nation and the world. “Pebble Beach has the most iconic courses,” Stepanek said. “Just being able to stand there on the tee box and play a hole and the whole course is just amazing.”
Teams for the event each included of one professional golfer, one junior golfer and two separate amateur golfers. The amateur golfers were donors who contributed substantial funds to the tournament in order to play the iconic courses. On her team, Stepanek was paired with professional golfer Mike Grob.
Team rankings were solely based on the performance of the PGA Tour Champion and the junior golfer on a ‘gross best ball’ scoring system. Under this system, the professional player initially completes the hole, followed by the junior player. Whichever score is lowest over par is then taken as the best score and is the score granted to the team for that hole.
While the first two days of competition were open to all competitors, the third day was reserved for the top 23 teams to make the cut. While Stepanek and Grob had fulfilled the expectation for the cut by finishing the first two days with a total of six over par, they unfortunately ranked 24th and were unable to play on the third day of competition. Regardless, Stepanek enjoyed her time at the tournament and said she will remember it as “one of the best weeks of [her] life”.
Stepanek’s father, Edward Stepanek, accompanied his daughter to the Nature Valley First Tee Open. “It was amazing to watch her play Pebble Beach. As a lifetime golfer myself, it’s been a dream of mine to play Pebble Beach. It’s one of the best golf courses in the country,” he said.