For District Youth, Golf Remains an Uncharted Course

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Sixty-five D.C. public schools students crammed picnic tables at the golf course at East Potomac Park one morning late last month and marveled as Roman Gonzalez, a golf professional from the Tiger Woods Foundation, handed them all sorts of the game's paraphernalia -- shirts, books, posters, even clubs. Some of the students, ranging from sixth-graders to high school seniors, began the day not knowing the difference between a driver and a putter, yet they hung on Gonzalez's words. Many were stunned by how much they had just enjoyed their first golf lesson.

But Gonzalez's most inviting words -- "If you play golf, you're my friend" -- might have been the most difficult for the students to follow. DCPS has not sponsored a citywide golf program since 1977. The students were at East Potomac that day to culminate a six-week program, funded by former WJLA anchor Paul Berry, that teaches them the game's fundamentals, supplies them with equipment and gives them access to the course, driving range and practice greens throughout the year, including the summer.

Berry established his program, Get Hooked on Golf, in 1987, hoping it would trigger a rebirth of a school-sponsored golf program. Other grass-roots efforts to spark interest among District youth in the game pepper the city's three public courses, but none has been able to revive a citywide scholastic program.

Many hope the arrival of Woods in the area could give the game sustainability among the city's youth. Along with hosting the AT&T National this week at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Woods and his eponymous foundation have plans to build the second Tiger Woods Learning Center (the first opened in Orange County, Calif., in 2007) at a site in the Washington area to be determined.

Greg McLaughlin, the foundation's president, said the learning center's primary objective is to be an educational resource. However, the facility, combined with the AT&T National, will put Woods's name in plain sight locally for hundreds of children who've long thought golf was outside their means or interest.

"It's definitely a lack of exposure," Anthony Clay, who graduated from McKinley this month, said while standing on the putting green at East Potomac during one of the Get Hooked on Golf sessions. "I don't pass by a golf course on my way home [in Southeast Washington] from school. It's something a lot of us haven't been exposed to and if a lot of your friends don't know about it, then you won't be able to get them to play. You don't hear a lot of guys say, 'Let's go to the golf course this weekend.' Instead, they'll go to the basketball court."

Although Woods's name is the drawing card, McLaughlin said, golf takes a back seat to the educational supplements the facility will offer.

"Although junior golf is something Tiger cares deeply about," he said, "the main focus is how Washington, Maryland and Virginia are going to benefit the most from the education centers. That's where our focus, energy and money will be placed. Junior golf is something we've tried to support through a variety of different means, whether it's clinics or one of our members conducting a series of clinics to introduce golf to a group of kids who wouldn't normally be introduced to it."

Jimmy Garvin, the president of Golf Course Specialists Inc., the firm that operates the city's three public courses (East Potomac, Rock Creek and Langston) also runs youth golf programs such as the Langston Junior Boys and Girls Club and Jimmy Garvin's All-Star Team, which combine to draw about 600 participants each year.

There also is the National School Program, operated by the World Golf Foundation's First Tee, which is active in physical education classes at more than 2,600 elementary schools nationwide, including DCPS.

The biggest barrier preventing District kids from getting onto a course, Garvin said, is making them aware golf exists in the city and that it isn't reserved for wealthy suburbanites.

Golf "hasn't been exposed to them in a proper fashion at any point in their life," Garvin said. "The price scares them away. You have to break those walls down. My goal is to develop talented golfers in middle school so that when they get to high school, they can be on the golf team."

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