Historically, golf never has developed much of a following among young blacks.
But this summer, the Junior Golf Academy, a free program for area boys and girls age 7 to 17, has been established to teach golf to youngsters.
The Academy, which began in mid-June, operates two hours each morning at Langston Golf Course in Northeast Washington where, on any given weekday, 75 to 100 youngsters hone their new-found skills before trained professionals.
During the sessions, each youngster receives 24 hours of instruction from visiting PGA professionals, videotaped lessons, a manual on how to play golf, use of practice range balls, a free golf club, T-shirt, visor and membership card.
The driving force behind the Academy is Butch Rhodes, 29, an assistant pro at Northwest Park in Wheaton. Rhodes, who grew up in Lansing, Mich., said the program "means more than just giving kids something to do.
"Playing golf has opened up a lot of opportunities for me," Rhodes said. "I was fortunate when I was growing up that I had people older than myself who showed an interest in me and exposed me to different experiences like golf that offered an alternative to the streets. I feel an obligation to do the same for these kids that people did for me."
Despite envisioning a youth golf program for years, it was not until this spring that Rhodes met with people and organizations who could help make it a reality. He first spoke with Willie Smith, concessions manager at Langston Golf Course and one of the golf academy's directors, about the use of Langston's facilities.
With Smith's support, Rhodes contacted Coca-Cola and the Middle-Atlantic PGA, both of which agreed to help sponsor the Academy. The money donated also pays the fees of the PGA golf pros.
"There have been programs directed at kids before, but they were generally one-shot deals -- exhibitions," said Rhodes, who drives to Langston every day from his home in Columbia. "A golf pro would come in and arouse the kids' curiosity, whet their appetite for the game a little, then leave them high and dry. There was no consistent program for actually teaching golf to youngsters."
Instruction for beginning golfers can cost from $100 to $150 per week at comparable golf camps, making the Academy a bargain for those who take advantage of it.
"We know what has stopped city kids from playing before: facilities, equipment and money," Rhodes said. "Well, we've made all the equipment and facilities available, and the cost is free. Hopefully, parents won't have an excuse to say, 'No,' anymore. The goal is to remove the obstacles so that any kid who wants to learn to play golf can play golf . . . and that applies to all kids who can get here, not just those living in the city."
Thus far, results of the program have satisfied golfers and parents.
"It's been a lot of fun," said Lynn Manning, a 15-year-old who participated in the first session. "At first, it's hard work, but after you get used to it, it's not that bad at all. The instructors were helpful, and I think everybody got something out of it."
Calvin Smith was one of the parents at Langston who braved the early hour and stifling heat. He stood by patiently while his two sons, Calvin Jr., 9, and Dominic, 6, put in a few extra minutes on the driving range after their session. Occasionally, Smith would shout words of encouragement or advice to his fledglings.
"Kids have needed a program like this for a long time," said Smith, who has played the game sparingly. "It's good that they can learn to appreciate golf as a pastime at such an early age. I wish there was a program like this when I was growing up. This is something more kids need to get into. Golf is a sport they'll be able to play a lot longer than football or basketball."
Although pleased with the Academy's success, Rhodes has not lost sight of his grand ambition.
"We're definitely going to try do this again next year, and we plan to have even more kids enrolled next time," he said. "But the big thing we're trying to do is to get golf back on the curriculum in the school system.
"The D.C. area is like a gold mine in terms of kids who could benefit from a program like this. There are just so many talented kids out there with all this energy and nothing to channel all it toward.
"Just think, if we could get just 20 or 25 kids who really stick with the game and continue to improve, in just a few years, we would have a whole crop of young black golfers coming onto the scene. That would be the best situation I can imagine."