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L.A. Drops Ball in Bringing Golf to Inner-City Kids

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three and a half years ago, the city of Los Angeles promised to bring golf to poor children. A year and a half ago, Tiger Woods’ victory at the Masters tournament made the prospect of a trip to the links a righteous aspiration, even for the coolest kids.

But the city’s Junior Golf program remains mired in the deep rough, with only a few dozen children participating at just one-tenth of the city’s eligible recreation centers.

Much of the $75,000 worth of golf clubs, balls and other equipment purchased by the Recreation and Parks Department for the program sits in warehouses unused. Efforts to lure instructors to poor neighborhoods from their suburban golf courses have borne little fruit. And buses to take kids from the ghetto to the courses have, in turn, been in short supply.

Children of every description remain inspired by the spectacular success of the multiethnic Woods. But it takes more than inspiration to bring golf to the masses.

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“I just don’t understand why it’s not happening,” said Ann Kerman, director of resource development for the Recreation and Parks Department. “In my view, you make these clubs and this equipment available and you bring in teachers, even if they are not full pros. . . . So I was really very surprised and disappointed to hear it was not happening.”

Kerman became aware of the slow progress of the Junior Golf program--which now is reaching youths in just 10 of 98 recreation centers in low-income areas--after inquiries by The Times.

Those familiar with the initiative say it has been hampered mostly by poor planning. The good news, they say, is that the program could be quickly turned around, particularly if it can recruit more instructors willing to travel to recreation centers and obtain more buses to bring youths to golf courses. In short: Bring the golf to the kids, or bring the kids to the golf.

The concept of promoting golf to children in poor neighborhoods is not new. The city and the Ladies Professional Golf Assn. ran a joint children’s program in the 1980s. But that effort atrophied because of a lack of attention from the parks department.

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In 1995, the opportunity for a resurrection presented itself in the form of federal Community Development Block Grant funds--money that is intended to improve living conditions for the urban poor. As the end of the 1995 fiscal year approached, the Recreation and Parks Department had excess funds and officials said they could use some of the money to reestablish children’s golf.

In just months, $75,000 was obtained and hundreds of clubs, balls, practice nets and hitting mats were acquired.

Kerman said it was her understanding that the equipment would be dispersed immediately to the 98 recreation centers in eligible low-income areas.

But apparently no one bothered to make more specific plans: Who would teach city recreation supervisors how to teach golf? Who would recruit golf instructors to travel to the centers? Where would the money come from to pay for vans and buses to take children to golf courses?

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None of those questions were answered. With no single authority given responsibility for Junior Golf, the program stalled.

“I think there was an opportunity for this grant money and they figured, ‘Let’s just get the equipment and then figure out how to do it,’ ” said John Morrison, director of the LPGA’s Urban Youth Golf Program, which serves 600 children from north Orange County to the San Fernando Valley. “But they never figured out how to do it.”

Morrison conceded that some of the professionals who teach in his program want to confine their instruction to golf courses--not only because they consider it more effective, but because they are uncomfortable traveling to recreation centers in some neighborhoods. He said that shootings and other crimes around some of the city facilities fueled the uneasiness.

“Some golf instructors don’t want to go to the inner city to teach kids to play golf,” Morrison said flatly.

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But he added that instructors in his program would be ready and willing to teach the teachers--bringing city recreation directors up to speed on the basics of golf instruction.

Even that has been stymied by the city’s lack of organization. It was not until a year ago, more than two years after the purchase of the golf equipment, that Recreation and Parks hired a director for its Junior Golf program. The director, Jun Arai, said that much of his time has been spent trying to arrange vans or buses to get youths to golf courses.

“I went to a [Recreation and Parks Department] district meeting, and a lot of the recreation supervisors said, ‘I want that program,’ ” Arai said. “But I told them I am limited in what I can do because I have only one van per region.”

Arai said he has started golf clinics at recreation centers in the central Metro region, which includes Griffith Park and its golf courses. He recently expanded to the Pacific region, bringing children to the golf course at Harbor Regional Park. The program has yet to reach into the San Fernando Valley.

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Kerman said she would like to see the equipment distributed throughout the city so lessons can begin at recreation centers, with the question of access to golf courses worked out later.

City recreation officials said they hope that the program will catch on, much as free or low-cost programs bring high-caliber basketball, baseball and softball clinics to the city’s recreation centers at little or no cost.

Officials said they hope that two other developments will help keep alive interest in golf among poor youths. The first was passage last summer by the Recreation and Parks Commission of lower fees for youngsters. Players ages 7 to 17 can now get on city courses for $5 on weekdays, down from $9.

“That shows the city is making a real commitment to have more kids play the game,” said Craig Kessler, a member of the city’s golf advisory committee.

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And plans are being finalized for a golf training center for youngsters in Griffith Park on the site of the old Coolidge pitch-and-putt course. American Golf Corp. has agreed to pay for and build a driving range, three practice holes, putting greens and a clubhouse with classroom.

City officials said there is still a chance the training center can open by next summer, although ground has not been broken and planners say they now realize that they will have to find money to repave the battered road to the site, which was last in use in 1981.

“It’s a tremendous program,” Arai said. “It just really needs to get off the ground.”


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