Columbia Golf Foundation working to expose schoolchildren to game 

BY STEVE WALENTIK

Published 5/1/16 in The Columbia Daily Tribune

Don Steele brought the donuts.

John Weston and his crew of volunteers — Rolando Barry, Laura Kraft and retirees Gary Mills, Jim Taylor and Steele — were all grateful for a little rush of sugar to pick them up as they loaded their white Kia Sedona minivan, the one full of stickers advertising the Columbia Golf Foundation.

It was 7:30 a.m. when they pulled out of the parking lot at A.L. Gustin Golf Course and turned right onto Stadium Boulevard, bound for the next stop on a nearly month-long barnstorming tour. They were headed to Mexico, Mo., and Eugene Field Elementary School, where they would spend six hours leading physical education classes as part of the foundation’s Golf In Schools program.

The Columbia Golf Foundation mission since its inception in 2010 has been to expose youth of all backgrounds and ability levels to golf and its values, by making it as accessible as possible, so that they might benefit from playing the game for the rest of their lives.

“For learning golf, my son explained it to me, ‘Dad, I think it’s like a foreign language. It’s best to start learning when you’re 5 years old,” said Weston, who started the foundation and now serves as its executive director.

Actor and former Columbia resident Lucas Black teamed with actor Andy Garcia to claim $60,000 for charity in the 2014 Pebble Beach Celebrity Pro-Am, and Black donated $25,000 to the foundation, which used the money primarily to purchase golf equipment for elementary schools in districts throughout Mid-Missouri: Southern Boone, Hallsville, Centralia, Sturgeon, Harrisburg, Fayette, Mexico, Moberly and Van-Far.

The plan from the outset was for the schools to incorporate a golf unit into their phys-ed classes. Throughout the past two Aprils, Weston has led a crew of volunteers to ensure that happens.

Weston hasn’t forgotten the kid he met on the first stop last spring who said at the beginning of a class, “I think golf’s an old man’s game.”

Weston and the other volunteers want to leave a different impression.

This April, the Columbia Golf Foundation crew has made visits to Moberly, Sturgeon, Harrisburg, Mexico, Hatton, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic School in Boonville and wrapped up in Williamsburg on Friday.

On Tuesday morning, Weston backed the Sedona up to Eugene Field’s gymnasium and walked around the building looking for a way in while Barry, Kraft, Mills, Taylor and Steele unloaded bags of clubs, buckets of soft balls of different sizes, rubber golf mats, orange cones and eight rectangular Velcro targets they would soon place along the baseline of the basketball court where they would teach kids the basics of putting.

Weston appeared at the back door to let the rest of the crew in, and they hustled inside to set up with time ticking down to the start of the morning’s first class, when a group of more than 20 fifth-graders would file into the gym.

Kraft, a former Missouri women’s golfer from North Dakota who graduated last year and coached the Hickman girls golf team last fall while beginning work on a master’s degree in positive coaching, took the lead in explaining how the session would go. But first, she tried to wake the kids up, demanding more energy from a simple “Good morning.”

“I just like to get the kids hyped so they’re excited about golf,” said Kraft, who lost her voice last week from overuse.

Things had to be condensed because of 25-minute periods for physical education classes at Eugene Field — compared to as many as 50 minutes at some other schools — so there was no time to teach chipping.

They began at the putting stations with the students huddling around Barry, better known around Columbia as the founder and executive director of the Missouri High Steppers. He showed them how to set up their bodies, telling them to imagine their feet placed perpendicular to the edge of one railroad track with the ball resting on the other, marking the line to the intended target.

“Everybody who understands me say, ‘Check!’ ” Barry said, his order returned by an eager “Check!” from the students.

Weston is grateful to have Kraft and Barry on board.

“Ro, in his case, he’s quite a character, great personality, but he has huge, decades-long experience with the High Steppers leading kids, motivating kids, communicating with kids,” he said. “Then Laura is just such an immediate peer, 23 years old. I did not know that she was going to be as good as she is as far as inspirational, communication, teacher. … She’s really, really good.”

The kids moved into eight lines and took turns putting five in a row at each of the targets while the crew corrected alignment and offered more specific instruction with an emphasis on setting a smooth tempo: “Tic-Toc.”

After a few moments, they moved to the middle of the gym, where Kraft demonstrated a full swing and the kids took turns trying to hit iron shots off the mats. The gym was suddenly transformed into a driving range with the “thwaaats” echoing off the walls.

Each kid had a chance to experience the challenge and frustration of golf but also the joy from one well-struck shot that can keep a person wanting to return to the course.

As soon as one class left, another was ready to take its place. In one day at Eugene Field, the Columbia Golf Foundation volunteers had the chance to interact with every grade level, from fifth down to kindergarten.

“They said, ‘Let’s keep us busy. Let’s not sit around,’ ” said Katrina Dukes, the school’s P.E. teacher, who coordinated their schedule. “Where I had recess duty, I had somebody bring a class in or they had library, I was like, ‘Come on down.’ ”

She was grateful to have them there.

“I just love having the kids learn something new,” said Dukes, who has no background in golf to teach the game or put the equipment donated by the foundation to use.

“Just having you guys come,” she told Weston and Kraft, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. They’re excited. They’re ready to learn. It’s awesome.”

Weston has been struck by the enthusiasm he’s seen, particularly from the elementary students.

“It’s new, and they’re not on a track team, they’re not on a baseball team, they’re not on a softball team, so it’s exciting for them,” he said. “Now, the other schools, they really enjoyed it — sixth, seventh and eighth grade. … They like it, but they’re just not jumping up and down as much as the little kids.”

They’ve also appeared more inhibited, not wanting to appear foolish if they struggle in front of their friends.

That’s all the more reason to try to grab their attention earlier, especially when Weston — who this year is serving as the boys’ golf coach at Tolton — looks across the high school golf landscape and sees a crisis.

“I think it really is. Just a participation crisis,” he said.

He’s seen the gap widen behind the very best high school players and everyone else. There are still standouts scoring in the low 70s and even breaking par on occasion, but too many other kids can’t shoot less than 90, and tournaments are increasingly played with rules that make double-par the highest score that can be recorded to keep things moving.

“When I was a kid, even in Neosho, we never had that, double par or anything like that,” he said. “The level of play has really dropped off. The amount of play has really dropped off. That goes hand in hand. If the amount of play drops off, the level of play is going to drop off, because you’re not getting a representative sample of the youth and the athletic ability.”

Too often there aren’t enough girls at a school to field full teams. None of the three public high schools in Callaway County — North Callaway, South Callaway and Fulton — has a girls golf team, and Weston estimates that’s true at about half the high schools in Mid-Missouri.

That’s not only a recent problem or one that’s been limited exclusively to more rural communities. Eight years ago, Hickman opened its season with only six girls and couldn’t field a junior varsity squad.

It was clear in the gym at Eugene Field that it isn’t a simple game for kids.

The volunteers broke out what they commonly referred to as the “Flintstone clubs” — putters and wedges with oversized heads meant to hit tennis-size balls — for the kindergarten and first-grade classes. For every kid who watched Barry putt or Kraft take a full swing and could intuitively emulate the motion, there were two or three who got their grips upside down, clenching the clubs like poles.

But there were also, even in 25-minute sessions, signs of progress. With a tip from one of the volunteers here or a tweak in their positioning there, kids who swung and missed the first time they addressed the ball were suddenly able to hit a line drive off the far wall of the gym or lift the ball into the air.

“You could see today how excited those kids get when they hit a good shot, especially the little girls,” Steele said. “They just jump up and down. It’s just really fun to see it.”

It was nearly 2 o’clock when the last class of the day concluded, and it brought a tinge of relief from the volunteers. They were ready to get off their feet and get to eat lunch.

They were gathering up the equipment as Dukes led the kindergartners out of the gym, headed for a music class. One of the girls at the end of the line paused for a moment on her way out the door and looked back at Kraft.

“When we have gym again, can we do that?” the girl said, smiling.

It had been a tiring day toward the end of a chaotic month, but there was the one purely struck shot sure to keep them coming back.