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FAITHFUL FAN | Priest’s donation of golf clubs provided a new path

Born to a 15-year-old mother on welfare in 1969, David Berganio Jr. faced many obstacles on the way to success.

He got a helping hand to kickstart what became his career.

Berganio received a set of golf clubs when he was 12 from Father George Miller of Guardian Angel Parish in Los Angeles. The starter’s set of Chi Chi Rodriguez clubs were a gift intended to keep him out of trouble. The priest was the pastor of the parish where he attended grade school and also the coach of his flag football and basketball teams. Berganio transferred to the school after being in trouble at a public school.

Eventually, golf and his education led Berganio to the University of Arizona and then the pro game.

The pro golfer was in the news recently for an odd reason — at the last minute he chose not to play in the Rocket Mortgage Challenge in Detroit. His golf clubs didn’t arrive and he was forced to miss the practice round.

That’s when he made the unselfish decision to give up his spot to someone else, knowing that he’d be far from his best without the preparation. That spot went to Nate Lashley, a younger golfer returning to golf after dropping out for a time after his parents and girlfriend died in a plane crash after watching him play.

After receiving the spot from Berganio, Lashley won the Rocket Mortgage Challenge, giving him a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour along with a spot in the British Open, Masters and PGA Championship.

Similar to L.A.’s Father Miller, kindly priests and parishioners in St. Louis are always on the lookout for children who can benefit from participating in sports. The Catholic Youth Apostolate’s CYC sports program hosts competition in nine sports.

The First Tee of Greater St. Louis also is filling the role Father Miller had in helping Berganio get his start in the game. Its mission is to impact the lives of young people by providing educational programs that build character, instill life-enhancing values and promote healthy choices through the game of golf. First Tee offers group lessons to youth up to age 18 regardless of background or previous experience.

Its goal is to help participants graduate from high school on time with the life skills needed to succeed in college and life, with the ability to make healthy choices and with the desire to positively impact communities.

Participants may bring their own golf clubs but First Tee provides clubs, balls, tees and other equipment for those who don’t have them. First Tee also provides scholarships to deserving graduates of its programs.

Anne Klein, executive director of First Tee of Greater St. Louis, said the organization receives donated clubs, bags and more and purchases new items with donations. “We give those to kids at no cost to them. It’s completely funded through donations,” she said.

An eight-week session of classes costs $75, but partial and full financial aid is available.

Klein attends Mary Queen of Peace and Holy Redeemer Parishes in Webster Groves. First Tee’s supporters include several people from the Catholic community. Nick Ragone, a First Tee board member and executive vice president of the Catholic health system, Ascension, said that “through its work, The First Tee is creating greater accessibility and opportunity for kids who might not otherwise be exposed to this wonderful game. We hope it creates a lifelong interest and enjoyment of the game.”

Kenny is a staff writer for the Review and a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Oakville.

How to help

To donate equipment or make a monetary donation to The First Tee of Greater St. Louis, visit www.thefirstteestlouis.org.

Contact The First Tee of Greater St. Louis at: 5163 Clayton Ave., St. Louis, MO 63110, (314) 533-6400 or aklein@thefirstteestlouis.org.

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