Junior golfers swing for the stars

08/12/2014 3:51 PM

08/12/2014 3:51 PM

The putting green was as quiet as a library except for the whisk of golf balls across the shaved grass and some geese honking in the distance.

On a partly cloudy Saturday in late spring, 15 members of the Kansas City Metro Junior Golf Club were assembled for practice at the Heart of America Golf Academy in Swope Park.

No chit-chat. No cellphones. No squirreling around.

Some of the players shone in neon pink and green; others wore more subdued hues. Some were tentative about their putting, others more confident in stance and aim. All of their heads were bowed as they took in tips from one of the club’s five volunteer coaches.

“Good play, good play,” said one coach. “You missed it, but it was a good play.”

A few yards away, head coach and club founder James Johnson, 69, of Raytown demonstrated a more basic skill: the correct way to store golf clubs in their bags. His voice was deep and soft, its tone firm but friendly.

Next he moved two players like chess pieces to illustrate the boundaries of the “safe zone.”

Another lesson: how to avoid being hit by a ball upon hearing the “Fore!” warning.

One more tip: Wear long pants to defend against ticks and chiggers.

While one group of players took off for the driving range, a semicircle of six or seven girls faced him for a session of encouragement.

“You guys are young. You’ve got an opportunity,” he said.

They could choose to be minor golfers or they could develop their swing, work hard at it, even consider shooting for a scholarship.

“But you have to practice,” he said. “There’s no such thing as a shortcut.”

Johnson’s road to coaching started on the segregated golf courses of Tennessee during the 1950s and ’60s.

He was one of eight children whose mother received a government welfare check of only $95 to $125 a month. He caddied to earn money while other boys mowed lawns.

Johnson did not learn to play the game until moving to Minnesota in his early 20s and trading a car battery for a set of clubs.

In Minneapolis, he worked with junior golfers for 18 years. When he moved to Kansas City in 2000, he saw nothing open and affordable for urban kids.

He spent a lot of time working on his own game, but that wasn’t enough.

“After a while, it didn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “I had more of an interest in seeing them play and progress.”

Johnson knew he had a marketing challenge.

“We don’t play golf. That’s a white kid’s sport.”

That’s how urban black kids think of the game, Johnson said. But the Kansas City Metro Junior Golf Club is designed to change their minds.

Open to children 7 to 18 years old, the club is free to those who want to join. Fees to play on the Swope Park course are covered, and Johnson’s car trunk is stocked with clubs, shoes, shirts and more for anyone who needs them.

The group started with 12 players a decade ago after a meeting of parents in the neighborhood around the Kansas City Public Library’s Southeast Branch at 6242 Swope Parkway. Their concern was how to keep kids engaged rather than dropping out of school or other constructive activities.

The original dozen headed a parade of 400 to 500 children and teens over the years. This year’s roster peaked at 80 names this summer, although the number at any given practice varies because each player chooses which practices to attend.

Retired from a career in corrections and social work, Johnson plays on different courses around the city with his friends.

“When I’m not with them (the junior golfers), I’m on the golf course. That’s how much I really enjoy the sport.”

And that’s about all James Johnson is going to say about James Johnson.

“It’s about the kids,” he said.

It’s about a boy who regularly “terrorized his neighborhood.” If a can of paint were left out, he would stripe the neighborhood with it, Johnson said. But after joining the club, his mayhem-making days were behind him.

It’s about another boy who was sidetracked by a golf demonstration on his way to baseball practice.

He remembers what the young man said: “Mama, I’m through with baseball! I’m gonna play golf.”

“Golf can raise a kid’s self-esteem from such a low to such a high that they will want to go to school, they will want to stay in school, they will transform every negative about themselves into something positive,” the coach said. “Their self-esteem just blows up.”

It’s about Johari Snell, 15, of Kansas City, who once played “Family Feud” with her family when this question came up:

“What sport would a muscular guy think he would not want to play?”

Golf was high on the list.

Some people think that golf is a “weak sport,” she acknowledged, but she knows better.

“It’s so much more than that. It’s intense both physically and mentally.”

She’s really into the sport. This summer, her grandfather arranged for her to take a few lessons from pro golfer Renee Powell, the second African-American woman to compete on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour.

“I feel like golf is complex,” Johari said. “Everyone has their own swing. It’s kind of like dancing.”

Dwayne Reid, now in his mid-teens, was about 8 when his mother signed him up. He remembers his first thoughts: “It was fun. I was thinking about how to get the grip right and hit the ball.”

Dwayne plans to keep on with the game as he gets older. He can see himself playing professionally one day. For now, he just keeps his eye on the ball in front of him.

“He’s actually pretty good when he concentrates,” said his mother, Linda Richard.

“The club gives him something to do other than watch TV or play video games. He could be out on the street doing something else.

“I think it’s very valuable. Every time I see someone with a kid, I’m telling them about it,” she said. “I’m always promoting them. It’s keeping kids off the street.”

To say that Darius Phillips, 11, of Kansas City is hyperactive would be a gross understatement.

Denise Phillips adopted her son when he was 2. Childhood trauma and early drug exposure resulted in learning delays, speech delays, trouble relating to peers and an “overwhelming” activity level, she said.

She was skeptical that Darius would stick with golf, since focusing on anything at all was a huge challenge three years ago. But he was at ease on the course and placed first in his first tournament.

“When Coach Johnson said, ‘He’s really good. He’s really focused. He’s like a laser,’ I thought, ‘Are you talking about my son?’”

The peaceful setting may have contributed to his success, she thinks. The effect of having a group of African-American men backing him has been stabilizing, too.

After Darius got hooked, his mom introduced kids from their neighborhood to the club. Some stuck with it, some didn’t, but the ones who felt it wasn’t for them decided that on their own, she said.

“They (the coaches) just made it so clear that ‘everybody here is going in this direction. Are you going in this direction?’”

Zenovia Bradley, 18, of Grandview has played since she was 7, when her family thought she was old enough to swing a club without hitting anybody.

Many lessons later, she is entering Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., in large part because of its impressive golf program. Her aunt, who loves the game, encouraged her to check it out after seeing the team play on television.

Bradley won a music scholarship to the school. She plays three instruments and belongs to the jazz band, Young Jazz Masters.

“The bassoon will be paying for my education,” she said. But the quality of the golf team she’ll play for was an equal draw.

Integrity and honor are the characteristics strengthened by playing golf, Bradley said.

“There’s no referee, nobody to call you out if you hit the ball in the woods and just drop it back on the green.”

Six or seven years ago, Wilbon Strong, 60, of Kansas City was perfecting his game on the Heart of America Golf Academy course when he was invited by Johnson to coach.

“I never thought I would be a golf coach,” he said.

Basketball was his sport in high school. He taught himself to play golf as an adult.

“When I was coming up I was in need, and there was nobody there to help me,” he said. “But I couldn’t be selfish just because someone wasn’t there to help me. I kind of made this a way of life.”

In the beginning, Strong said, most players have very little discipline.

“You get to know the kids, you get to learn their behavior, and if you’re a good coach, you can see it in them.”

There’s another word for “recreation” in Jaliyah Conway’s vocabulary.

Her advice to beginners: “Don’t give up, stay on task and have fun,” she said. “At first I thought that this was going to be hard for me. After a while I got the hang of it, and I started making new friends.”

Putting is her favorite part, chipping is the hardest. The 9-year-old Kansas Citian said she is following in her dad’s footsteps.

James Conway, 34, tries to get in as much golf as he can when he’s not working.

It was at work, back when he was 25, that he was attracted to the game. A co-worker on a construction job used his breaks to send golf balls flying into a nearby lake. Conway watched and watched, until he finally tried it himself.

“My first time swinging a club was when I fell in love with the sport,” he said.

He started taking Jaliyah to the driving range when she was 7.

“She struggled at first,” he said. “She wanted to do it her own way.”

The more she listened to instructions, the more she improved.

After two years at his daughter’s practices, he became a coach for the Kansas City Metro Junior Golf Club this spring.

For Jaliyah and all the kids, Conway wants them to be able to follow directions and “to take life lessons.”

“It’s not just all about swinging the club,” he said. “When you can teach them discipline at this young age, I think it goes a long way in life.”

The experience has taken Ciara Bazemore to Lincoln University in Jefferson City, where she has won a golf scholarship.

“I never thought I’d be playing golf in college,” she said. “It was just something I loved.”

Bazemore, 19, played with the club for about seven years, which helped her start on varsity in O’Hara High School.

“The club is really like a family,” she said. “I think it’s really important to have a group like that take you in and show you the way around. You won’t be lost. They really take you under their wing.”

Mion Charity Wilson first held a golf club putting for Moon Pies at the Southeast Community Center, 4201 E. 63rd St. Just a few years later, she had two tournament trophies.

“I like that it’s quiet,” the 10-year-old Kansas Citian said of the sport.

She believes practice is best when the boys and girls split up, as they do once school is out for the summer. The boys are “rowdy,” and they break her concentration.

“Focusing on what I’m doing during golf helps me focus on other things,” Mion said.

Her mother, Aireoshia Wilson, agreed.

She said focus is the word that helps her daughter concentrate not only on golf, but other sports, math and piano.

“Coach J.J. is so passionate about working with the kids,” Wilson said. “He’s one of those rare people who can take something he loves and turn it into something that can help other people.”

Jim Watts took a spur-of-the-moment swing through Swope Park after picking up his granddaughter from golf lessons elsewhere. When they came upon the Kansas City Metro Junior Golf Club practice, there was no question where that granddaughter would be learning the game from then on.

Today Watts is a board member and a fundraiser for the group.

“KC Metro Junior Golf is good for the mind, heart, body, soul and spirit,” he said. “This exposure can change a life. It can enhance their intelligence, even lead to college,” he said. “That’s very rewarding, to see kids go on to higher education.”

But while the club has not been entirely without benefactors, its leaders must continually go “begging,” Johnson said. It takes $700 to $800 per month to cover playing and practice times each season.

An annual adult tournament helps pay for the junior club members to play in the Alvin Brooks Annual Metro Junior Golf Classic, which was July 14-16 this year.

But generally, a handful of individuals and companies contribute about $500 each during the season. Additional funds would allow more players to play in more tournaments. It could mean the ability to create scholarships.

“All of the kids who stayed in the club until they were 18, and who graduated from high school,” Johnson said, “have gone on to college and never gotten caught in the criminal justice system.”

Getting involved

For more information about the Kansas City Metro Junior Golf Club, go to kcmjrgc.org or call James Johnson at 816-313-1274.

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