How a golf caddie academy got low-income kids into college
Peggy Lopez couldn’t tell a driver from a sand wedge. Harvey Diaz had no idea how many holes were on a golf course. Lydia Mabamije had never heard of a caddie shack, be it a locker room for club-carrying youths or a classic 1980 comedy starring Bill Murray and Rodney Dangerfield.
Golf was a foreign sport to these teenagers four years ago, but it is now their ticket to college. They are among six Los Angeles-area high school seniors to receive the Western Golf Assn.’s Chick Evans scholarship, a full tuition and housing award valued at an estimated $120,000 over four years of college.
The six spent the previous three summers in the Chicago area as members of the Caddie Academy, a seven-week WGA program that provides caddie opportunities to young men and women from underprivileged areas.
After undergoing selection interviews at the Tradition Golf Club in Palm Springs on Feb. 18, they were among 285 students from across the U.S. chosen as Evans scholars in March based on their strong caddie records, excellence in academics, outstanding character and financial need.
Ana and Alejandra Buenrostro, twin sisters from Compton Centennial High, plan to attend the University of Kansas in the fall, with Ana studying criminal justice before going to law school and Alejandra pursuing a career in nursing.
Savanna Hernandez of Compton High and Lopez of Centennial will enroll at the University of Washington, where Hernandez will study to become a social worker or youth psychiatrist and Lopez will pursue a degree in nursing in hopes of becoming a neonatal nurse.
Mabamije, a Hawthorne resident who went to Inglewood City Honors College Prep, will attend Penn State and major in business with an eye toward working as a sales or marketing manager for the PGA or LPGA.
Diaz, who lives in South Los Angeles and attended Santa Monica St. Monica High, will enroll at Oregon as a business major, the first step in a master plan that includes a law degree from Michigan, a few years of work as an attorney and a run for the U.S. House of Representatives seat in his district.
“I didn’t even have a plan for my future,” Diaz, 17, said. “I probably would have attended community college, but that’s about it, because my parents aren’t really wealthy. But the [Caddie Academy] program helped me develop a sense of hope for myself and for me to be a role model for my younger siblings.”
Caddie Academy participants are chosen during their freshman year of high school. Strong grades, leadership and character are prerequisites. A knowledge of golf is not.
Mabamije, whose single mother works as a certified nursing assistant at the Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, first learned of the program and its link to a possible college scholarship at a school fair.
“I was new to the country, and I told my mom, ‘Hey, here’s an opportunity for me to have the luxury of having a dream school and to also make money over the summer,’ ” said Mabamije, whose father died in 2014, the year her family emigrated to the U.S. from Lagos, Nigeria.
“She was like, ‘What do you have to do?’ I said, ‘Oh, I just have to caddie.’ And she asked me, ‘Lydia, what is caddying?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, but we’ll find out together.’ ”
Lopez, 18, said she “knew absolutely nothing about golf” when a school counselor recommended her for the academy. Diaz knew little about the sport when his high school principal suggested he apply for the program, “but it sounded like a cool little summer job,” he said.
A crash course awaited the students three years ago when they arrived on Chicago’s North Shore for the first of three summer sessions, which run from mid-June to early August.
“When I got there, I didn’t know what the clubs were, how many were supposed to be in the bag, how many holes there were, I knew nothing,” Diaz said. “But they taught me everything I needed to know about the golf course.
“I developed a really good relationship with my golf pro. He taught me how to read the greens and stuff. I got better and better each year, and I really put the effort in. I finished with 175 loops [rounds of golf] in three years, the most in the program, and was the highest-ranked caddie, which was an honor.”
The average household income of Caddie Academy participants is $30,000 a year. The program provides airfare to and from Chicago as well as room and board, with girls residing at the Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart in Lake Forest, and the boys at the Evans Scholarship House at Northwestern University.
Caddies work six days a week at a dozen or so clubs along the North Shore, and with hourly wages and tips, they make from $1,000 to $2,500 a summer. A typical day begins with a 6 a.m. wake-up call, breakfast, transportation to the club, a few rounds of golf and a 4 p.m. return.
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After dinner and chores, evenings are filled with SAT prep sessions, guest speakers and career talks. The program includes college visits and educational field trips. Current and former Evans scholars serve as counselors.
“We have book club, movie nights, a gym nearby to work out in,” said Mabamije, 17. “There’s a dance studio, a library, an amazing garden to take pictures in, a chapel if you want to pray. … They pretty much have everything you need.”
There were also opportunities for networking and career development on the golf course. Caddying for a Northwestern graduate school marketing professor, Mabamije said, helped fuel her passion for business. Conversations with golfers, Lopez said, helped build her confidence and self-esteem.
“My first year, I was pretty shy and intimidated by all these golfers, because some of them were businessmen and women who are very successful in their careers,” Lopez said.
“But I developed a really great work ethic and communications skills being there. We’re always talking with the golfers, whether it’s about what they do for a living or any advice for what would be good on the golf course.”
Three summers of hard work and commitment to the sport culminated in scholarships from the Evans Scholars Foundation, which was founded by famed Chicago amateur golfer Charles “Chick” Evans Jr. in 1930.
The foundation is funded by contributions from 32,500 golfers across the country; Evans Scholars alumni, who donate more than $14 million annually; and proceeds from the PGA Tour’s BMW Championship event.
The six L.A.-area students hope to join the more than 11,000 students who have graduated from college as Evans scholars.
“I honestly don’t know where I would have gone to school without this,” said Mabamije, who commuted two hours by bus to get to high school. “I really can’t afford to put that much strain on my mom with a bunch of student loans.
“I probably would have gone to a community college, called it quits after two years and gotten a job. … With the Evans scholarship, it made my American dream a lot easier to see.”
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