When Krista Dunton helped launch the local LPGA*USGA Girls Golf chapter 14 years ago, she imagined she might someday have a daughter who would benefit from the program.
She was partly right.
“Of course, my 12-year-old daughter wants nothing to do with golf, and she’s playing travel soccer and basketball,” Dunton laughs. “Part of me would like to see her a little more involved, but it’s been great to touch so many kids in this area and fun to see so many girls that I’ve worked with who have either continued with golf or are doing other sports locally.”
The nonprofit LPGA*USGA Girls Golf program was founded in 1989 by noted instructor Sandy LaBauve — a friend of Dunton’s whose daughter, Lindy LaBauve, incidentally, was briefly the women’s golf coach at USCB — and now boasts more than 500 local chapters across the country with more than 1 million girls having participated since its inception.
Dunton started the local chapter in 2009 to provide an easier access point for young girls to be introduced to the game.
“The whole premise was to get girls playing together in a little bit of a non-threatening environment and get them out there with each other so they can feel more comfortable,” Dunton said.
The backbone of the program is “The Five E’s of Girls Golf” — empowering girls with confidence and inspiring them to dream big; enriching girls’ lives by expanding their minds and horizons; engaging girls with positive female role models and mentors; energizing girls with passion for the game of golf, and exercising girls’ minds and bodies to help them unlock their full potential.
“It ties into golf instruction with building young girls’ character development,” Dunton said, “and just creating good human beings, basically.”
That philosophy overlaps with the nine core values emphasized by The First Tee, another program designed to introduce children to golf and teach valuable life skills in the process, so it was only logical when the local chapters of the two organizations announced a merger this spring.
Dunton is a renowned instructor who is a household name on Top 100 lists from the likes of Golf Magazine and Golf Digest. In her role as director of golf instruction at Berkeley Hall, she primarily works with adults, and her network of pupils has become a large source of support for the youth program.
In early June, Dunton organized the 10th installment of the Women Growing Girls Golf fundraiser at Berkeley Hall, bringing together six highly-regarded women pros to lead a clinic for about 50 women and girls. The clinic raises about $4,000 annually to support the grassroots programming through LPGA*USGA Girls Golf.
Dunton said contributions have also come from the Lowcountry Women’s Golf Association and Women’s Stroke Play Organization, as well as past and current students, including some who have made donations in memory of lost loved ones.
“They don’t have any skin in the game, so that means a lot,” Dunton says. “It’s really touched a lot of lives, which is really rewarding. I’m very grateful for women in our community stepping up to support and foster an environment for girls to learn and enjoy the benefits of the game of golf.”
The merger with The First Tee Lowcountry brings an exciting new horizon for Dunton’s LPGA*USGA Girls Golf chapter. Programming will remain largely the same with 10 two-hour sessions from January through early May at Berkeley Hall, Colleton River’s Par 3 course, and The First Tee Lowcountry facility on Hilton Head Island, but the partnership should allow room for the girls golf program to expand.
Dunton’s program grew to nearly 80 girls at one point, and it tested the organization’s resources, but it has leveled off to about 40, which is closer to the sweet spot. Because the grassroots program is focused on introducing beginners to the game, Dunton envisions developing a tiered program, so to speak, that allows players to graduate to more advanced instruction and begin playing more competitively.
“I think the big opportunity for us is getting the girls started young but then developing those players in middle school and keeping them developing competitively to play on the high school team and maybe have an opportunity to play in college,” Dunton says, noting many girls leave the game around ages 12 to 13 when it begins to demand more of their time. “I’d like to see them start to play more tournaments and get ready to play for their schools and play at the next level.”
And if local players put in the work, Dunton thinks the opportunities to keep playing and parlay it into an education will present themselves.
“A lot of the college programs are using a lot of scholarships on European players,” Dunton says. “I’d like to see more of that money stay in the States.
I think we just have to create better programs for those girls.”