John Morrison promotes golf among high school students of inner-city Los Angeles. But even he can't keep up with the demand.
His Inglewood-based LPGA Urban Youth Golf Program is at maximum capacity with 700 boys and girls, and Morrison is expecting a waiting list of 200 to 300 this summer--two to three times the normal amount.
Although interest in golf in the inner city has been rising in recent years, it has increased dramatically the last few months with the emergence of Tiger Woods as a major player on the PGA Tour. After Woods' victory at the Masters earlier this month, Morrison said his phone rang for days.
"All of these parents want to know how they can get their kids in golf," he said. "They see what Tiger is accomplishing, and they think their son or daughter should have the same opportunity. Without him knowing it, Tiger is our best spokesman right now."
About half of the high schools in Southern California field golf teams. The percentage is lower in the inner city, where student-athletes often have less exposure to golf and less accessibility to courses.
The Urban Youth Golf Program, open to students between the ages of 7 to 17 from all areas, is made up primarily of minorities. Members can hit a bucket of balls or play a round of golf for as little as $1 at several area courses. Many receive instruction and equipment at little or no cost.
Several area high schools also have benefited from the program, which has donated equipment and lessons and provided low-cost practice facilities.
Cathedral High near Chinatown has its first varsity team in more than 30 years this spring. Coach John Ferrante had been trying to start up the sport but couldn't afford to do it until the Urban Youth Golf Program supplied starter clubs and occasional instruction.
"Only one of our kids had ever been exposed to golf before our team, and now we have more players than available spaces," Ferrante said. "Our kids are really dedicated and want to play year-round. They're green but surprisingly enthusiastic."
Tom Nitahara found a similar reception at Jefferson High in South-Central Los Angeles. The former boys' basketball coach had more than a dozen players show up last spring for the school's first golf team in more than 40 years. Donated equipment and the opportunity to play golf for $1 per student are what made the team possible.
"I've never advertised golf at school, so the interest has all spread by word of mouth," Nitahara said. "I have a waiting list this season. I wish my van was bigger so I could transport more kids to the course. It's been pretty amazing."
Donations have kept the golf team alive at the ethnically diverse Los Angeles School for Enriched Studies on the Westside. Carol Altshiller started a class and a team when she arrived at the magnet school 12 years ago.
The class is so popular that Altshiller routinely has to deny admission. The team won the City Section Division 4-A title last season.
"Wherever we go, people are always donating old shoes, gloves and whatever else we need," Altshiller said. "My players have even gone as far as writing some of the golf equipment companies seeking donations. Sometimes they respond back."
All of the coaches agree that Woods, who won three Southern Section individual titles while playing at Anaheim Western High from 1991-94, has helped spur interest in the sport.
Altshiller said so many students came up to her after the Masters inquiring about her golf class that she could have had three such classes and still not satisfied the demand.
Interest has increased so much that the Urban Youth Golf Program can't keep up with demand from high schools trying to launch teams. Director Morrison started the Golf Assistance Program last year and four or five schools expressed interest. The list has grown to 15 this year.
"We have a budget of $400,000 this year, so we can't do everything we'd like," Morrison said. "A number of foundations supply us with equipment, and we try to get it in as many needy hands as possible."
There are other organizations providing help. The Young Golfers of America Assn. of Los Angeles donated clubs to such schools as Inglewood, Locke, Hamilton and Crenshaw. Director Marvin Finley often sets up tents at inner-city high schools, displaying clubs, bags and balls to generate interest.
Several of the area's most prominent minority high school golfers are members of the YGAA's Gifted Golfers group, which is limited to 18 students who excel in the classroom and on the course.
"The purpose of this group is to provide additional instruction to student-athletes with a lot of potential," Finley said. "Our goal is to try and get as many of these kids as possible college scholarships."
It worked for Michelle Walker, a senior at Lakewood Mayfair, who received a full golf scholarship to Bethune-Cookman in Florida.