It’s about a 90-minute round trip from Lenexa to Harrisonville, and yet Robert Nelson made it repeatedly throughout the past school year so that he could help coach both the boys and girls golf teams at Harrisonville High School.
There was no money in it for the recently retired financial adviser, but there was a great deal of satisfaction in watching his young charges improve over the course of their seasons.
In recognition of his dedication, Nelson received the 2016 Volunteer of the Year at the Harrisonville School District’s year-end ceremony last month.
A relative who teaches chemistry in Harrisonville told Nelson about the coaching opportunity, knowing of his love for the game and his availability.
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Nelson was a state champion as part of a two-man team in 1971 at Shawnee Mission East High School. He went on to play for the University of Kansas and continued to play in amateur tournaments, winning several consecutive club championships at Leawood South Country Club, among others.
He took up the game while working as a teenage caddy at Indian Hills Country Club.
“I played a ton of golf,” Nelson said. “I hit a ton of practice balls. In the 1980s, I would play six days a week. I loved to play, loved to practice. I got to go to a lot of great places and made a lot of friends in the game.
“When I decided to retire, I wanted to do so while I was young enough to find a high school program that I could be involved with … where I could still walk and play with you and teach you the things that I had learned,” Nelson said.
High school is the sweet spot for someone like him, he said.
The First Tee program, sponsored by the United States Golf Association and others, does a good job introducing the game to youngsters, he said, while college players have already developed their game and have plenty of good coaches.
“High schoolers are lucky if they have a coach who plays competitively,” Nelson said. “I’ve been around enough great players and teachers. … I’ve lived and breathed it my whole life … so they get the benefit of someone who has been absorbed in the game for 48 years.”
Nelson said he tries to make practice fun, using contests and prizes to motivate the players and teach them various skills.
“We try to simulate the feeling you get walking onto the 18th green with everybody watching,” he said.
Harrisonville’s head golf coach Chad Morehead said Nelson’s “wealth of knowledge” and “great background” were “a great asset to the program” this past school year.
“He’s passionate and wanted to give back to the game of golf,” Morehead said. “He knows the game so well. He goes out early and scouts the pin placements. He’s a student of the game. He strives to get better and works well with the kids.”
The boys team finished their spring season with an 8-2 record and came in second in their conference. The fall season was the first for Harrisonville’s girls team. Each team had about a dozen players.
Morehead nominated Nelson for the Volunteer of the Year honor, and almost half of the players wrote letters of recommendation.
Nelson said he intends to continue his volunteer coaching.
“If I can get a little better each coaching season, I can help them get better, too,” he said.