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Using Golf To Drive Home Rules and Values Needed in Real World

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CLEARWATER, FLA.--Brandon Walker, looking straight ahead without much expression, announces his score: par--a five--which is much better than that of the stranger who is sitting behind the wheel of the golf cart.

"Your second shot was good,'' Brandon tells the stranger. "But your putting killed you.'' It is all true.

Brandon, a 6th grader, is the master of this golf course. He can point to the spot where his ball usually lands. He knows how to avoid the traps and displays a decent touch for making clutch putts.

"Golf is about my favorite thing,'' he says.

Brandon is one of about 110 children from the Clearwater area gaining a deft grasp of golf after school at the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation here. At the same time, they have been instructed in the skills and discipline of another game in which they were not always so well polished: schoolwork.

Not only is Brandon likely to appear on the leader board of junior golf tournaments after learning to play the game here, he is also a regular on the honor roll--marked progress from school days that began with his having to repeat kindergarten.

In a photograph in a 1989 issue of Life magazine, Brandon is an unnamed face in the background, one of five children smiling as they stand around Chi Chi Rodriguez, the amiable professional golfer whose own life is a tale of a hardscrabble Puerto Rican youth who beat the odds.

Still active on the senior golf tour, Mr. Rodriguez spends several weeks each year here and regularly phones the youths from the road. He calls the place "heaven,'' and says the program mines all that is good from the sport that made him famous.

A Par-Five Laboratory

Taking a game that is often seen as a proper pastime for the power crowd, Mr. Rodriguez and the organizers of the foundation here have opened up the golf course and fundamentals of the game as a retreat and exemplar for a decidedly different clientele.

Over the past 14 years, the youth foundation has grown to include community-service work for juvenile offenders; a golf-instruction program for local social-services groups; and the popular after-school Chi Chi's Kids program. Together, the programs now include nearly 500 youths. Beginning in the fall, a full-time school for 5th graders developed by the foundation in cooperation with city and school district officials.

The concept of the program is simple: that the courtesy, respect, and discipline expected on the golf course, together with the tranquil setting and dedicated teachers, offer valuable lessons for troubled, but intelligent, children who are distracted, confused, and many times left to feel disconnected.

"This is self-graded and non-violent; there are rules and there are values like honesty and being neat and clean,'' according to Bill Hayes, a former teacher who co-founded the foundation and oversees its day-to-day operations.

In addition to building upon golf etiquette, the program uses the course and facilities to show the importance of academic skills. It demonstrates for students why classroom lessons need to be learned by teaching everything from landscaping and agronomy to retail sales, marketing, and management in the pro shop.

In fact, as Brandon strokes another par putt, he is standing on one of the facility's chief laboratories.

More than carpet for a parade of duffers, here a golf green becomes an interesting combination of mathematics, science, and language skills. When the youths here are gripping pencils rather than drivers, they are shown the many lessons to be learned from the importance of top-dressing greens with sand and overseeding with rye grass.

Students learn math by calculating the dimension of the greens and their square footage. They explore science by identifying soil composition and drainage. And they reinforce their writing and language skills by writing about their projects.

Further into the curriculum, the youths are taught scientific reasoning, computer skills, and the mechanics of much of the machinery used to maintain the course.

Mr. Hayes says the lessons of golf, and the observations of people and employees at the foundation's two working courses, begin to hit home with most of the children once they start to see how the program is built to deal with them individually.

Too many schools, he says, have become so preoccupied with maintaining order and enforcing regulations that they no longer address the needs of each child.

"We take the risk of treating them unequally and on a personal level,'' Mr. Hayes says. "I think most educators see the need for that, but they are not capable of addressing it because they are so handicapped by the rules. Teachers are not teachers so much as they are representatives of an institution. Meanwhile, these kids are starving for attention and affection and a personal touch.''

Rather than become involved in learning and education, Mr. Hayes says, students who are not getting ahead in regimented schools try to gain respect by fighting for control. That, he notes, is where the youth foundation's policies contrast with those of schools.

"You can't be sitting over there with 'The World Sucks' on your T-shirt talking to me. We don't do that here, but that's what they have in some high schools,'' he says. "We need projects that are inspiring and create leadership, that make people who are willing to take risks and be an individual.''

More Than a Game

Vincent Reid, the foundation's golf-operations director, can launch a golf ball in a way that makes Brandon and his playing companions swoon. But for all his expertise and experience with junior golf programs, Mr. Reid knows he is teaching more than a game.

"The emphasis is on building character and citizens for the future,'' Mr. Reid says. "What you see here in the kids is a desire to have fun and enjoy it, even though most of them can't grasp the concept of being a great player.''

"Even so,'' he adds, "most of them had rather be on the golf course than any place else in the world. It's like getting to that podium where everything good happens.''

For some of the children, the alternative would be spending afternoons on restless neighborhood streets or playing pickup basketball in a park not far from drug dealers.

"This builds a lot of character; it puts pride in them that they can achieve something,'' Mr. Reid says.

Looking out from a golf cart in the afternoon sun at a swarm of children on the putting green as they wait for a ride home, he predicts, "You are going to see some champions, and you are going to see some model citizens, and they are going to come from this group.''

Brandon anticipates that Mr. Reid's dream will come true.

He says that, during his short tenure in the program, he can see that it has helped build strong friendships. He and some other boys from the program play golf every afternoon and all day during their summer vacation. His goal, he says, is to make his high school golf team.

Beyond the sport, and his efforts to gain consistency from a modified, less-rigid stance and swing, he says the program offers children time with volunteers and employees who can offer assistance on homework that parents might not have the time or knowledge to help with. The children who join the program also learn other lessons, Brandon says, noting that it "makes them nicer and care more.''

Throwing Out the Rule Book

In contrast with his strict regimen for conduct on the golf course, Mr. Hayes decides that, in designing a school, the rule book stinks.

As cinder blocks are quickly laid into the sandy soil here, the foundation is drawing closer to realizing its chief goal: an overhauled and unconventional public school. The Modesta Robbins Partnership School, which was built through private funds, is scheduled to open this fall.

Thirty-six 5th graders will make up the initial class. Two teachers will be provided by the Pinellas County school district, and aides will be hired by the foundation, which will oversee the curriculum.

The 5,000 square-foot building will house two classrooms and a conference room. The building symbolizes an idea Mr. Hayes first proposed at age 28, in his early teaching days.

"I said I wanted to create my own public school, and they looked at me like, 'Who is this nut?''' he remembers.

Like the after-school program, the curriculum will focus on the operations of the golf course and use as much applied instruction as possible, organizers say. The incentive, Mr. Hayes says, will be to prepare students academically, not to win greater funding or to follow every rule.

"We don't have to do things the same old way,'' argues Mr. Hayes, whose no-nonsense approach is reflected throughout the foundation's activities, which do not compete to win grants and are not aimed at winning the praise of researchers.

He concedes, however, that working in partnership with the local school district and city officials has helped to build a stronger program.

"We could make a private school out of this and charge $20,000 a year, and they would come, but we need the schools and the city,'' he says. "Otherwise, you could get some screwball who decided that golf is the answer to life.''

"This is the real world,'' he says. "We want to keep it simple and real.''

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