Diverse Mix of Students Win New Shot To Get Into the Swing of Golf

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Bridgeport, Conn.

Never mind that a cruel, wet, last-day-of-March snow is pouring down outside. Inside the gymnasium of the James Curiale School here, a determined group of about 50 middle school students whiles away precious afternoon hours chipping and putting on plastic turf mats, practicing swings, and taking cues from their coaches--an amateur golfer, a high school golf coach, and a team of teacher-enthusiasts, among them--just like the pros.

Jomaira Plaza, a 12-year-old 7th grader at Elias Howe School, narrows her stance, locks her arms and shoulders into place, adjusts her grip, exhales, and crisply chips the ball onto the "green"--on this wintry day, a large mesh basket across the gym floor.

"I like the game a lot. I'd like to play in high school, and then maybe get a scholarship to college," she says. "I have a pretty good swing."

Jomaira is one of about 70 middle school students--equally boys and girls--involved in the Bridgeport schools' golf-academic program, a 3-year-old venture that combines learning the fundamentals of the game with academic enrichment.

Twice each week and through the summer, students from five of the district's public schools spend an hour working on their math and reading skills--through golf-related material--and then work on the fundamentals of their game at a local golf course, or in foul weather, on imaginary greens at Curiale School.

The program has instilled in Jomaira a knowledge of the game and the self-control and etiquette required to play it.

But above all, the after-school program has taught her that golf is a sport for everyone.

That message, say organizers, is spreading, as is the word among youths that playing the game is, well, cool.

"When we started this program, the kids would say, 'Golf? Why golf?,'" says Alan Wallack, the program's organizer and the director of athletics for Bridgeport's 36 public schools

"But the sport has changed. It's loosened up and opened up, and kids are responding to that."

Mr. Wallack started the program to introduce minority students to golf and to give children in his 22,000-student district something worthwhile to do after school.

It also serves as a feeder program for Bridgeport's high school golf programs, which compete against wealthy neighboring districts whose team members' skills flower at an early age on country club courses.

Explosion of Interest

Mr. Wallack and officials across the country say that golf is taking off, a result of the recent success of Tiger Woods, a young professional golf sensation who happens to be black, and a golf-industry effort to appeal to young people by underwriting some of the major costs associated with the sport.

"Kids tended to think of golf as an old man's game. But Tiger Woods has taken that connotation away and has made it appealing to them," said Dorothy Mastromonaco, the grants administrator for the USGA Foundation in Far Hills, N.J., which provided a start-up grant to the Bridgeport golf program. "We think it's a terrific idea to bolster that interest within a school system."

"We've seen an explosion in interest in youth golf programs," added Marcus Williams of the National Minority Golf Foundation in Phoenix.

"Kids from all different backgrounds are wanting to take up the sport. It's really uplifting," Mr. Williams said.

As in Bridgeport, athletic officials at schools nationwide have expanded their programs as a result of golf's new appeal.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, a Kansas City, Mo.-based umbrella organization of states' interscholastic governing bodies, 11,400 schools fielded golf programs last school year. Of that number, 440 were new, making golf one of the fastest-growing school-sponsored sports.

In Chicago, for example, more than 90 public schools have added golf to their sports rosters since November.

The schools' golf program had been active in the 1970s and 1980s, but landed in a bunker several years ago after school officials there concluded that the sport held no interest for urban students.

"It's important to point out that children from urban neighborhoods play all sports, not just basketball and football," said Mark Lowry, the Chicago program's coordinator.

And in Atlanta, more city high schools have competitive golf programs this year than ever, the district's athletics director, Eddie Henderson, said. "Not everyone can play football or basketball."

A Tiger Tale

Roophy Roy, a 13-year-old 8th grader at James Curiale School and a three-year veteran of Bridgeport's golf program, is just happy to have had the opportunity to learn golf.

"I love it, and my game's been improving year by year," he says.

Time will tell, but it seems that picking up the sport has already changed Roophy's life and for the better.

Teachers here say his grades and demeanor have improved remarkably since he took up golf.

In addition, a few members of the Brooklawn Country Club in nearby Fairfield, where Roophy caddied last summer, were so taken by him that they decided to sponsor his high school education at the tony Fairfield Prep School, where he hopes to play on the golf team.

"Golf has encouraged me to look ahead," he says. "I'm thinking I'd like to play in college and maybe professionally."

Roophy's passion for the sport--and for his idol, Tiger Woods--was so evident to the rising golf star at a youth clinic at the Brooklawn Country Club in June 1995 that Mr. Woods gave him his golf bag, one of the best gifts Roophy says he's ever received.

Roophy and other program participants say that they've been following the tournaments that Mr. Woods, 21, has swept since turning pro, and they'll be rooting for their hero in this year's Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., scheduled to begin this week.

Success stories like Roophy's are "phenomenal" and rewarding, says Mr. Wallack, the Bridgeport program director, but so are the more day-to-day victories."These are the kids who normally might not play sports," Mr. Wallack says.

"By exposing them to golf, they're developing self-confidence, their grades are improving, and even if they don't play competitively, they'll take with them skills for a lifetime," Mr. Wallack says.

"Out of all the things I've done," he said, "this is the most rewarding."

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