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Tigermania Has Coattails for Youth Golf Programs

May 10, 1997|Mike Williams, the head professional for Chester Washington Golf Course in South Los Angeles, also teaches in a number of youth programs sponsored by golf associations and equipment manufacturers. He talked with BRETT COLLINS about the surge of interest since Tiger Woods won the Masters tournament

I started noticing a change when Tiger went on the PGA tour last year. Now you find more grandparents and parents inquiring as to how they can get their kids in one of the programs.

I've known Tiger since he was 6. I knew he'd be good, but I didn't know how good. I knew he was pro material. You can see it in a lot of kids; it's just that many don't have the opportunity to be able to do it.

Because of Tiger, I think kids will lean more toward golf. I used to catch kids on the driving range, jumping the fence and stealing golf balls. Now, they come over here and ask someone how to hit the balls.

The country clubs have always had these types of programs; they start their children in the junior programs. It was always a white man's game and only their kids had an opportunity to play, until public courses came along. American Golf does a lot for youth programs; they'll give clubs, equipment, range and practice facilities.

We have three major programs--Youth Golf Assn. of America, which is the largest, Western States Golf Assn., which has been around a long time, and the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. sponsors a program. I play for Cleveland Golf [a manufacturer].

In the YGAA we have a separate program called Gifted Golfers. They have to maintain a 3.0 grade average and be college-bound. They must also have a 10 or less handicap. Once they sign a letter of intent to play in college, Cleveland fits them with bags, clubs and so on.

I'm from the Midwest. The Joliet [Ill.] Country Club, a private club, was right down the street from my house. I started out caddying. I was a baseball pitcher and threw out my arm., so I got more into golf. I had a buddy on the course; by the age of 15, we were scoring at par. When we tried out for the high school golf team, we found out where we stood. We could beat all the guys on the team because we caddied for their fathers. But we couldn't make the golf team because it was strictly a white man's game--sort of an unwritten rule. We finally made it, though, after two years.

I was elated when Tiger won the Masters. I knew his dad and watched him grow up, played against him and practiced with him. It's good for golf because kids are getting an opportunity they wouldn't have had were it not for Tigermania. But we need to remember the [older black golfers] who made it possible--Ted Rhodes, Bill Spiller, Lee Elder, Charlie Sifford. Spiller was the pioneer. He was a hothead. Those guys made it all possible, leading the way.

A good set of golf clubs is $1,200 if not more, so it's a good thing that Cleveland and the LPGA give [some] kids clubs at no cost.

We don't have to recruit kids--they come to us. We do a youth day, an introduction to golf, once a month; the beginners play games, win prizes, and are coached by advanced students and pros from various clubs, who donate their time and talents. To get in the regular program, you have to attend it.

Greens fees for a junior player are just $8.50 to $10. The programs are very strict; we don't allow any playing around and dress codes are enforced. We have an equal number of boys and girls. It's more black kids because we are in the inner city, but we do have all races participating. Come one, come all.

Golf offers a lot as far as [supporting] academic study. The youth golfers travel a lot and meet a lot of different people. It's good for their character. This game is more mental than physical. It's one of the richest games in the world, you against the golf course. Our purpose is to get children who don't have an opportunity to play team sports off the streets and get them involved with the best sport around. I've never met a bad kid. All they need is a little guidance, and golf is the way.

For information on the introductory program or to get involved:(213) 756-6975.

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