JOHN MacDONALD READS about kids killing kids and this city's rising homicide total and thinks this:

If only someone had put a club in their hands when they were young . . .

A golf club.

"Instead of three or four seconds of anger ruining their lives, think about what you're going to do," says MacDonald, executive director of the Philadelphia Chapter of The First Tee program.

"That's what this is about for me."

This, The First Tee program, is celebrating its 10th year of existence. Initiated by the World Golf Foundation shortly after Tiger Woods exploded onto the golf scene, it strives first and foremost to develop character and life skills through teaching economically disadvantaged kids the game of golf. Since 1997, The First Tee has grown to involve more than 1.4 million kids in 46 states and five countries - Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Singapore.

The First Tee Philadelphia began 3 years ago, but thanks to people such as MacDonald and this city's inviting -- and cooperative -- public facilities, it has grown rapidly, to a current enrollment of 2,336 children. Almost half are girls, says MacDonald - an unexpected but not unwelcome occurrence. There is also a suburban branch out of Wyncote Golf Club, headed by Gregg Russell, which serves 600 kids. It has been around since 1999.

The program consists of four tiers - par, birdie, eagle and ace - and participants who move up one level to help mentor those immediately below. While golf skills are taught, the program emphasizes the life skills inherent within the game itself. Called "The nine core values," those skills include the following: honesty, integrity, confidence, courtesy, judgment, spontaneity, respect, responsibility and perseverance.

"What we are trying to teach kids is to think about what you did, consider it, then take action," says MacDonald, a longtime golf tutor. "Don't take action right away. You hit the ball in the creek; don't throw your club. A little brother or sister does something to you, throws something at you - instead of throwing something back, take a break, relax and consider everything."

The First Tee is about this more than it is about developing the next Tiger Woods, organizers such as MacDonald say. He points out a doubling of kids making the honor roll since the program began here. A University of Virginia study cited the program for its success in character development, and MacDonald boasts, "Ninety-six percent of our kids see improvement in some or all of those core values.

"There's so many more things you can build them up about through golf," he says. "They try to hit it out of the bunker and can't, but they're laughing about it. You give them a high five for that."

None of it would be possible, though, without Woods' phenomenal success as a professional golfer. "He has put golf in a very different place," says Joe Louis Barrow Jr., executive director of The First Tee and son of the famous boxer. "Tiger has really raised and diversified the interest in the game. We find that through young people and their parents, the fan base for golf is broader than from traditional golf sources . . ."

The First Tee reflects that. More than 50 percent of its participants are from racially diverse backgrounds, as compared to 16 percent in all of golf, Barrow says. "And 35 percent of our participation is girls as compared to 25 percent in all of golf," Barrow says.

That's not all Tiger's doing. Title IX, with its emphasis on equal spending for men's and women's collegiate sports, created a glut of women's golf scholarships. And while The First Tee has yet to produce a glut of male scholarship candidates - "That's not its purpose," reminds MacDonald - it is beginning to create scholarship-level players among girls, Barrow says. "And we'd like to see that increase."

Says Barrow: "The bottom line is that Tiger has really assisted in the increased interest in golf. And in making available for The First Tee and other like programs to start to reach young people who historically have not been interested in the game or have only been interested in a passing way.

"The other thing - 90 percent of our facilities are on public ground. That would not have happened before Tiger broadened golf's scope. More and more cities and counties and states' park and recreational departments recognize how golf can play a role in the character development of their communities. And in some cases they are providing us with raw ground which we're improving, and in other instances they are providing us with access partnerships that are extraordinary, and they probably wouldn't have done that years and years ago."

Or . . . before Tiger. As for finding his heir apparent, Barrow recalls being asked about it during a television interview that he and the late Earl Woods were part of during The First Tee's early years.

"Before I could answer, Earl did," he says. "He said, 'It took me 20 years to create the first one. Why don't you give these people a little more time?'"

And the scholarships?

"Your scholarship is that you're a better human being," MacDonald says. "It's not about finding the next

Tiger. That might happen by accident, but it's not what this is about." *