Ben Curtis played here

There’s a plaque on the first hole at Mud Run Golf Course, Akron’s newest public course, stating that Ben Curtis teed off here in April 2003, shortly after he won the British Open.

Curtis is the perfect example of a PGA champion who started young and got a significant part of his golf education at a public course.

Former caddy, golf enthusiast and Akron councilman John Conti was one of the driving forces behind developing Mud Run — a 100-acre, former flood management and illegal dumping ground located in Southwest Akron — into the new 9-hole, public golf course and home to the First Tee program.

Conti credits his early experiences on the golf course with influencing his success and believes the First Tee program, which teaches children of all ages the game and life lessons of golf, is just the kind of development Akron needs.

Smart Business met with Conti, vice president and Akron councilman-at-large, to talk about the success of the First Tee program, future plans for housing and, of course, Ben Curtis.

Getting funds for a public golf course, Akron’s second, in these times is impressive. Was it a hard sell?

Some folks asked, ‘Why are you building another public golf course when we already have one?’ The problem was that we didn’t have enough staff to run a junior program or access because, in fact, the golf course has been very busy.

We already owned the land, and I said, ‘I think we could build a golf course here.’ And through the contacts with the PGA tour, Akron was asked to get involved with the First Tee program.

I had been on council for seven years and I was an officer and basically convinced the other members that, here’s a national program we can bring to Akron to help all the children of Akron. So, of course, they bought into it.

What made it work and expedited it was that a number of people that were involved in the tournament were behind it. Otherwise, it was crazy Conti coming up with this idea and wanting to spend this money. With the council and the mayor, we understand making long-term investments.

You’re training all these young golfers. You know as they get older, they’re going to show you up.

Well, we could use them. We are just so glad to have Ben Curtis from here. He drove the green, by the way.

Ben Curtis opened his mouth up when he was here and said that any time he is in town and can help with the kids to let him know, and believe me, that’s what we wanted to hear.

The Chi Chi Rodriguez program has a Pro-Am tournament every year that raises well over $1 million — so that is what we need to have with Curtis. Akron used to have a Pro-Am through the tournament, but no longer. You have people that are willing to pay $5,000 to play from around here in Akron and all over.

If Ben Curtis would hold one for First Tee and invite his buddies, then that would be great. According to his coach, Ben’s the real deal, and I believe it.

How is golf, a traditionally older, nonminority sport, going over with these younger kids?

We had about 450 kids in the program this summer. So the program has gone beyond what we had planned, and it makes golf affordable and accessible.

There is also the life skills. The thought is that each summer, they will have about 500 kids in the program, and about 100 of them will become hardcore golfers. We made that goal the first year.

It is like a sanctuary for them. They are protected while they are here, and they get support and positive reinforcement. When they are here, this is their place and it’s for them.

Like Vincent King (First Tee director) says, I can sit in the classroom and beat them over the head with these ideas and character traits and they look at me bored. But put a golf club in their hands, and the wind blows through their hair and the sun on their face, and they will listen to me all day long.

Talk a little more about the First Tee program.

They are on the course each day from about 11 to 1, and on Thursday, there is a league. You can be in the league and not in the First Tee, and then they can come in on Saturday after 2 o’clock and play as well. So the kids get quite a bit of access to the course.

When they are here for the First Tee program, they are in uniform — none of the girls’ bellies are hanging out. Here (with the uniforms), boys and girls don’t relate to each other on a sexual basis but on an equal basis as competitors

They are out here to learn the character traits. Vincent King is a taskmaster. He tells them off the bat, ‘To whom much is given, much is expected.’ He says there are no three strikes and you’re out. So they love him.

We want to teach them a lot of different things. Vincent is going to take them to the opera and the ballet. He went to the beauty college in Akron and the barber, and he has it set up so the kids can go and get free haircuts to help with any self-esteem issues.

I can’t change your home life, but for a few hours each week, I can show you a better way — and maybe a college scholarship, too. We will be the opportunity that these children didn’t have before.

What’s in store for future development?

We are going to run about 120 houses over here, and this will be part of an urban renewal project, too. There is a shopping mall, but ideally, over the next three to five years, we will be able to acquire that.

We are hoping to put some moderately upscale housing up there, because we don’t have housing, new housing in Akron, of the range of about $200,000 to $350,000. You can buy more, and we have less, so that the middle-class folks that are looking for that size of a footprint, they have to move out, and we don’t want to lose those folks.

Why is this so important to you?

I had the good fortune, when I was 12 years old, I had a friend who told me I should caddy at the country club because I could make all this money. I started caddying, and they let you play on Mondays. And I really love the game and learned so much from the members. They were role models.

They told me I had to go to college, and I always thought that we needed that here in Akron. You need a program where you get the kids on the course, so for about 20 years, I’ve been trying to do this.

In 1997, I got the Parks and Rec department to do a program called ‘Hook a Kid on Golf.’ And the second year, we got a league going.

What’s the course like?

This is equal to any private club. There is a half-acre putting course for the kids for training.

There are 20 heated and covered tees. This is the premier First Tee facility right now. And like with the tournament, when people want to learn how to run a PGA tournament, they came to Akron.

And now, when a community wants to put together a First Tee program, they will come to Akron.

What, in your mind, is the return on the investment into creating Mud Run?

If we have 500 kids and 100 decided that eventually they are going to go to college. There are a number of predominately black schools that provide scholarships to play golf, and there are girls’ schools that offer scholarships.

When I was a kid, my parents didn’t make a lot of money, but I went to that country club and asked the members how they got the Cadillac and those nice clothes, and they were telling me I should go to Brown University.

They served as role models. I got a work ethic, then I had people that were trying to encourage me. And that’s what the thing is here. How to reach: Mud Run Golf Course, (330) 375-2728