After 5-year-old Xavier Adams and 7-year-old Chase Taber each sank short putts on the 16th hole at Glenn Dale Golf Club on a hazy morning earlier this week, the two children knew exactly what to do next. It was the final hole of their round, so both the young boys approached each other, tucked their miniature putters under their arms, and shook hands. Then they put their arms around each other and walked off the green, with Taber telling his buddy, “I know you can do better on this hole!”
It was the type of moment that their instructor, Dana Coleman, has come to appreciate this summer from her pee wee golfers at the Troy Beck Golf Academy’s summer youth golf program in Prince George’s County, which is about 70 percent minority. That brings Coleman a diverse roster of students every week, but kids are kids, and golf is golf. She had five students last week, age five through seven, with three boys and two girls, and they had their moments of fun. They chased each other on the course, threw mulberries at each other, sucked down popsicles in between rounds.
But they also learned how to play golf; the difference between chipping and driving, and how to always wipe their shoes after hitting a shot in a bunker. They learned how to be quiet for each other on the fairway, and how to always shake hands after they finished playing for the day.
“When the light bulb goes off, it’s really great to see it with them,” Coleman said. “I think it exposes them to a sport they don’t know a whole lot about.”
Beck, 58, is a former LPGA Tour player. Her program has grown from three camps when she started about 25 years ago to 10 camps this summer. With a team of three instructors, including Coleman, she teaches nearly 600 youth golfers a year.
She lets them hit water balloons. She honks at the kids when she is driving the range picker on the driving range, picking up balls and daring the children to try and hit the truck. She opens a candy store at the end of the day so the kids can buy sweets with imaginary points they gain by hitting good shots on the course.
“If you can get kids to think golf is fun, like other sports, they’ll keep playing it. A lot of kids, you know, [say] ‘Old man sport. It’s boring,’ ” Beck said. “Like anything, the kids, as they get better, want to do it more. So our goal always is, make it fun first. Then develop skill level.”
Part of the appeal is the setting: Beck’s academy sits on the fringe of Glenn Dale’s course. It was built in 1956 and designed by George Cobb, who was the architect of the par-3 course at Augusta National four years later. Beck’s space is unpretentious and child friendly. She conducts her lessons from an open red barn tucked in a corner, uses old whiskey barrels to hold her flowers near the entrance of her office, and keeps spare clubs in the middle of stacked tires near a shed.
For a competitive fee (weeklong camps run under $200), parents can drop their kid off to Beck and her staff for an unconventional summer camp atmosphere. Golf may be an evergreen hobby, but it is slow and methodical. Beck and her staff remedy the challenge by changing activities throughout the day. She lets them play with frisbees to help develop hand eye coordination. The staff uses boards as see-saws to excite the kids, who don’t know that they’re working on their balance and posture. Hitting water balloons hones their swing and focuses them on making contact.
The course’s proximity in Prince George’s County naturally brings diversity to the program, and Beck has been deliberate in running women-only instruction programs throughout the summer. But she said she’s never kept count of the number of girls and minorities that come through the camps, adding, “Kids don’t pay any attention to that.”
Still, the children show measured growth throughout the camp, learning to play a game with ancient customs and adult-mannered etiquette. Before the end of the camp’s final day this week, the 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds took turns chipping on the driving range. They each took three shots before letting another camper go. Coleman looked on. Beck started cooking hot dogs on a small grill for lunch.
After some of their shots, the small boys and girls would look back to see if their coaches were watching, including Beck.
“My first year I started up, I could probably only hit it out to the 60. Now I can hit it the 125,” said Taber, pointing out at the yard markers on the driving range. “I’ve been playing since I was two. Troy taught me.”