First Tee scores new classroom at Highland Springs 

Rock Island’s Highland Springs Golf Course is teeing up plans for a new clubhouse that will not only will serve its regular golfers but also will help a new generation develop a love for the game.  

A crowd of more than 70 gathered Thursday, June 16, at the city-owned golf course for the official groundbreaking of the new clubhouse, which will feature a permanent classroom to house the First Tee Quad Cities. The 300-square-foot classroom will be just one of the amenities in the new 300,000-square-foot clubhouse.

First Tee Quad Cities
Young golfers with the First Tee Quad Cities scoop up dirt at Highland Golf Course as part of a groundbreaking ceremony for a new clubhouse at the Rock Island course. The new facility will include dedicated classroom space for the growing First Tee program. CREDIT JENNIFER DEWITT

A handful of young First Tee participants – flanked by Rock Island city and park leaders as well as First Tee board members – scooped up shovelfuls of dirt to mark the beginning of construction. The $2.1 million project is being built by Estes Construction, Davenport, and was designed by Legat Architects, Moline. 

John Gripp, Rock Island’s parks & recreation director, said the city’s partnership with First Tee – and its financial contribution to the building – helped move up the construction of a new facility likely by years. “We came together to solve each other’s problems,” he said.

He said the golf course is operated as a city enterprise fund, and therefore, does not get tax dollars for its operations. It is supported by its patrons and its own sales. By building a modern, more spacious clubhouse, he added, it will allow the golf course to be open to rentals for small gatherings, parties and events, which it does not have the space for now. “It will be a whole new revenue stream and we need it.” 

Sara Cross, First Tee Quad Cities’ executive director since 2019, said the organization has partnered with Rock Island since 2013. In that time, it has served 1,000 Rock Island County youth who learned golf and life skills. Launched in the Quad Cities in 2001, First Tee also is offered at Davenport’s Red Hawk and Emeis golf courses.

But the new clubhouse will give the youth development program its first permanent home in the Illinois Quad Cities, Ms. Cross said. “I’m a proud Quad Citizen, and this is such a special partnership and project. It’s something that we fundraised for and put a lot of sweat and tears into.” 

First Tee Chairman Decker Ploehn said the group raised $300,000 as its pledge for the new clubhouse’s construction. He also credited a long list of other organizations who donated to the cause including: The Bechtel Foundation, Jeff Bittner; The Carver Foundation, Roy Carver; John and Joanne Kettman; Quad Cities Community Foundation; Scott County Regional Authority; Doris & Victor Day Foundation; Vonderharr Family Foundation; Rock Island Community Foundation; and Bill and Dr. Sue Rector.  

“These kids aren’t just learning how to improve their golf game, they are learning core values  that will stay with them for the rest of their lives,” Mr. Ploehn told the crowd of First Tee board members, city and parks leaders, other donors and a class of young First Tee golfers. 

Rock Island Mayor Mike Thoms, who applauded his staff including the city’s park and rec department for the partnership with First Tee, said the new facility will help grow the program’s reach. “It’s always great to see an opportunity to help youth. I know it’s a cliche, but they really are 100% our future.”  

He credited First Tee with helping the city’s youth, most of whom are from underrepresented populations, learn self esteem and confidence that they will carry on into their futures. “It really makes a difference in their life,” the mayor said. 

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