Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Human Interest

Developmentally disabled students take a swing at golf on USF's Claw


They spread out along the driving range that morning, six students who had never played golf. The pro at the University of South Florida's Claw course handed them each a bucket of balls.

"Okay, now, let's keep an arm's length between the next person," said Jeff Gibson, who is also a physical education professor at USF. "We all need to loosen up a bit, then we'll get started."

Alex Lange, 20, moved to the left end of the line. "I just want to make that beautiful ball go sailing into the sky," he said.

Casey Kimerling, 20, put down his iPad for the first time all day and squinted into the sun.

Shane Collins, 21, tugged on a black ball cap.

The youngest student, Randall Watkins, walked off to peer through a net. There, on the school side of the practice range, eight women from the university's golf team were driving balls. Watkins took off his blue sunglasses to better see the girls, keeping his back to his class.

"Hey, whatcha doing over there?" asked Gibson.

"Relaxing," replied Watkins, who just turned 18.

"Well if you're going to watch the girls, at least watch how they swing," Gibson laughed.

"Okay," Watkins nodded, without turning around. "I can do that."

• • •

The students, ages 18 to 22, all have developmental disabilities. They came to USF through Hillsborough County's STAGES program: Successful Transition After Graduation for Exceptional Students. Formed in 2004, the two-year college course teaches young adults life skills so that they can live independently — and better navigate the world.

"We train them so that they can work, we help them get jobs and learn to use public transportation," said director Gigi Gonzalez. "We also want them to try new things and have fun."

Over the summer, when Gonzalez contacted the university golf course about hiring some of her students, the golf pro offered to give them group lessons. Every Friday, from 10 to 11 a.m., he teaches six of the students how to chip and putt, how to drive golf carts — and tee shots. Soon, he hopes to pair each one with a player from the school and send them out on the range.

"Most of them barely knew what golf was," Gibson said. "The first day we just drove around looking at the grass, showing them the holes and the alligators.

"Some of these kids will never be able to play golf, and that's okay. At least they're getting to see a place they had never been, getting outside in the sun instead of sitting at a computer, and learning how to concentrate — and connect with new people."

Gibson, 59, runs a golf academy and has been a pro for 40 years. These are some of his most challenging students, he said. But for the ones who get it, who even get one good swing in, "their reactions are the most enthusiastic," he said. "They are so proud!"

He taught the students a victory dance, a simple shuffle to celebrate when they hit a ball high and far. Randall Watkins had never done the dance. He seldom hit the ball.

• • •

They dumped their buckets of balls onto the driving range that Friday, five students who couldn't wait to try. Watkins was still watching the women's team.

"Okay, come over here and get a short one," Gibson said, setting out a bag of clubs. "And let's see if anyone can hit one to the red flag."

On the left end of the line, Lange lobbed a long, low diagonal. Kimerling, still squinting, sent one high, but it fell short. Collins took a big swing, missed, and spun in a circle. The pro called to Watkins, "Come give it a shot."

The tall, thin boy put his blue sunglasses back on, picked up a club and planted his feet apart, like the pro had shown him. He reeled back, swung hard and kicked up a clod of dirt bigger than the ball.

"That's okay," said Gibson. "Try again."

Another divot, more dirt; then a wedge of grass flew from between Watkins' sneakers. "Three strikes and I'm out, right?" the boy asked.

"This isn't baseball," said the pro. "Here, let me help."

Standing behind Watkins, he put his palms on the boy's shoulders and turned him slightly.

Watkins shook him off and scowled. "That hurts."

Other kids in his class had putted before, with their dads. Lange had been to the driving range with his big brother. But Watkins had never even seen a golf course before this one. He didn't have a dad or big brother, or even a mom. He has been in foster care "for forever. Too long. I'd rather not talk about it."

Now that he has turned 18, now that he has a job pressure-washing buildings at USF, he is supposed to move out of his foster family's house — where he has only been for a year. He said, "They already have another kid waiting to take my room."

He watched Lange drive a ball to the first flag. He saw Kimerling, who never smiles, do a victory dance. Collins kept swinging and spinning and laughing.

"That's the way," the pro told each of them. He walked to his bag, pulled out four mid irons. "Here," he said, handing them out. "Try this."

Watkins swung at the ground. "Hey, I want a big club!" he shouted.

"Well," said the pro, "first show me you can swing a little one."

Dropping his short iron, Watkins walked back to the net. One of the women saw him and waved. Her club was even bigger than the other boys', its metal head twice as wide. "Hey!" Watkins called. "I want to use what you're using."

The woman, whose blond ponytail trailed below a straw hat, said, "My driver?"

"Is that what it's called?" Watkins asked.

The woman nodded and started walking toward him. "I'll tell you what," she said. "You hit five in a row — up in the air — and I'll let you use my driver."

Watkins grinned. "Really? That's what I'm talking about."

He walked back to the line, picked up his short iron and tilted his shoulders. This time, when he swung, the club clipped the ball, which flew about 3 feet. Watkins smiled at the pro, at his classmates, then turned to the woman. "Did you see that?" he cried. "First base!"

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