Kids take to the links By Brad Spencer
Frank Pinc / Chicago Parent Sam LaBarbera watches his golf shot fly during a lesson at Bushwood Golf Center in Maywood.
Rotate your shoulders, but keep your head down and your eyes on the ball," Marty Joyce, a professional golf instructor, says to Sam LaBarbera, who is lining up to crush a little white sphere out into a field of more little white spheres at Bushwood Golf Center in Maywood. Sam rears back his 8-iron. In one swift and fluent motion, he catapults the ball through the air. There is a brief moment of silence as the ball lands gently near the 50-yard marker.
"Great shot!" Joyce exults.
"That's the groove swing, that's the groove swing," Sam's grandfather, Walter Bassi, proclaims proudly.
Sam is not your typical golfer but his sleeveless shirt, denim shorts and colored tube socks aren't the reason. Sam is 10 and a sixth-grader from Elmwood Park. He's a beginner, through and through.
"I play a lot of golf and little Sam wanted to come play golf with me," Bassi says of his grandson's desire to take up a difficult sport. "I said first things first-you must go and have lessons. Now look at him. This is just his second lesson and he's nearly hitting the ball like Tiger Woods."
Sam is not Tiger Woods-considered by many in the profession as one major reason for drawing thousands of youngsters to golf in the last few years-and more than likely will never be. But Sam is one of a growing number of kids who have shed the misconception that golf is too complex a sport or too individualized for enjoyment at a tender age.
"It's fun," he says of golf, before shanking a shot off to the right and scowling, "except when I do that."
Learn golf and life With the rapid growth of youth instructional programs, organized and presented by golfing conglomerates such as the Professional Golfers Association, the United States Golfing Association and the World Golf Foundation, kids now have many resources at their disposal. The push to get kids involved has been overwhelming and successful. The World Golf Foundation recently announced that an all-time high of 37.9 million people, which includes junior golfers ages 5-17, participated in the sport in 2003.
The increase in interest by youngsters can be attributed to programs such as The First Tee, a nonprofit program that teaches life skills such as respect, perseverance and courtesy along with golf to kids. The First Tee has several programs in the Chicago area that offer lessons on a sliding fee scale.
"Golf is more difficult than other sports for kids, not so much in the fundamentals of the game but in other aspects," says Steve Dell, executive director of golf for The First Tee of Chicago. "There are course availability and cost issues to consider. It's not a very accessible sport for kids. Here in Chicago a kid can pick up a basketball and go down to the local park, but golf is a little more involved. The First Tee provides a solution, an outlet for kids interested in golf to get through the so-called barriers."
Dell says The First Tee holds up to 250 golfing programs a year in Chicago and has helped approximately 4,000 inner-city junior golfers learn and improve on the game.
The Chicago Park District also provides golf programs for kids, as does the Illinois Junior Golf Association. Many of these golfing organizations seem to work hand in hand in exposing the sport to kids. According to the Illinois PGA Web site, its foundation, in conjunction with the Chicago Park District and The First Tee, provided instructional and playing opportunities to nearly 18,000 children last year alone.
The junior golf basics So at what age should a child begin the sport? Mark Psensky, a PGA professional who has been giving lessons at Diversey Driving Range in Chicago for 10 years, says as soon as a kid shows interest, parents should hand him or her a club, preferably a putter.
"If a 4-year-old sees mom or dad playing golf and wants to do the same, then I recommend taking the child out to a putting facility, whether it's miniature golf or at a country club on a practice green," suggests Psensky.
Psensky is adamant about parents not pushing kids into playing golf. "It can be a very frustrating sport-just take a look at Tiger Woods' demeanor lately as he struggles to get back to the way he was playing before-and making a kid take lessons who has no real interest in the sport will only compound the problem. When the child shows the interest, not the parent, that's key, but that's how it should be for any sport."
The game offers a sense of discipline, integrity and patience for youngsters, according to Psensky. "Golf is a self-monitoring, individualized sport, and kids tend to look for something they can accomplish without receiving much help from others. There's immediate self-reward in golf when you hit a good shot."
As his grandson finds that "groove swing" once again and belts a shot this time beyond the 50-yard marker, Walter Bassi howls with delight. "When he gets real good and goes pro, hopefully he'll remember who gave him lessons and he'll let me caddie for him." Resources Play Golf America www.playgolfamerica.com
Junior Links www.juniorlinks.com
The First Tee www.thefirsttee.org
Hook a Kid on Golf www.hookakidongolf.org
World Golf Foundation www.golf2020.com/wgf/
Professional Golfers Association www.PGA.com
Brad Spencer is sports editor of the Wednesday Journal, a sister publication of Chicago Parent. An Oak Park-based writer, Spencer is the father of twin daughters.