As a teaching professional, Rick Waltman has helped hundreds of golfers with their slice or hook. But Waltman always had a feeling there were others he should be helping as well.
He was keenly aware of golf's reputation as an expensive sport, reserved mostly for those with the means to buy clubs and pay greens fees. He wanted to change that, to expose children from lower-income families to golf.
"If they're never exposed to it, they'll never know what a great game it is," said Waltman, 44. "It teaches discipline and self-motivation. And it's the kind of game where once you hit that first good shot, you want to keep playing."
He knew he could get funding for a weekly program through First Tee of St. Petersburg and Florida Sports Foundation. And he knew he had the perfect venue at Twin Brooks Golf Course, a par-3 course in Gulfport. What he didn't have was the golfers, and that's where Bill Darling stepped in.
Right place, right time
Darling is the kind of person who chooses his words carefully. He will not give his age. He will say only that he is retired from General Electric and lives near Lake Maggiore in south St. Petersburg.
He also says he is a natural salesman. He discovered golf only a few years ago, after watching Tiger Woods on television.
"I used to wonder why people would chase a little white ball all day in the hot sun,'' Darling said.
He bought a used driver from a friend and one day they decided to go to Twin Brooks. They quickly discovered a driver was too much club at the short course. They also realized they liked golf.
Darling began taking lessons from Waltman. Within a few days, Waltman was talking about his plans for starting a golf clinic.
"I could tell that Rick genuinely wanted to do this," Darling said. "I was taking lessons from him and I didn't know him very well yet, but he said that he had a vision. All of the golf programs were usually for the advantaged or wealthy kids. He said he needed somebody to get him some disadvantaged kids. He'd find a way to get some money for the program, but he wanted to help the kids. That's where I came in. I'm a pretty good salesman."
Darling began at his church, McCabe United Methodist. He went to parks where kids played. He rounded up anyone who was interested. Just days after the two talked about the program, kids showed up on a Saturday morning for the first session.
"We wanted to expose these kids to golf, not just the game, but the rules and the discipline that it takes," Waltman said. "We started with about six or eight, and that quickly turned into 12 or 16. Now the kids bring a friend. We'll take anyone who wants to play.
"In the past, that has been the challenge. How do you get the outreach kids to come and how do you get them to stay? Bill was the link. He's been a huge part of this."
Darling said it wasn't always easy convincing families to try golf.
"I had a lot of doors closed in my face," he said. "Some of the parents didn't understand. But I knew how good of a program this was. It's not just about golf."
Enjoying the game
Sedale Hudson is in the middle of a longest drive contest. He has made it to the final two as he places a ball on a plastic tee at the Twin Brooks driving range. He takes a long backswing and nails a ball nearly 200 yards straight down the middle.
"Good shot, Sedale," Waltman said.
Hudson, 11, smiles from ear to ear.
"I like football best, then track, then golf," he said. "I used to not like golf until I started to play. Now I look forward to playing."
Morgan Rock, 15, and her sisters, McKenzie, 13, and Madison, 8, have been a part of the program for two years. They attend Southside Fundamental Middle School and look forward to playing on Saturdays.
"I shot a 42 on nine holes once," McKenzie Rock said. "That was my best score. I always try to beat it."
During a recent Saturday afternoon session, Deborah York-Carter is watching her sons, Michael and Gerald Carter, go through drills before they head out for nine holes.
"It's awesome," she said. "I couldn't think of a better sport for them to play. It challenges them mentally and physically. In this game, if you hit a bad shot, it's done. You have to think about the next shot. I think it's that way in life also."
Hoping for growth
There are two sessions on Saturdays. The first, 9 a.m. to noon, is for beginners. The more experienced play from 1 to 4 p.m. And for those who outgrow Twin Brooks, there is a session from 1 to 4 at Mangrove Bay Golf Course.
Waltman doesn't do it alone. He relies on volunteers. Darling donates his time. And Saturday, Norm Baker and Art Wright, both retired and living in St. Petersburg, were there to give instruction. "As soon as I heard about this program, I got involved,'' Baker said. "I think it teaches life skills."
There are similar programs in the area. First Tee of Clearwater has a weekday dropout prevention program for at-risk kids. And First Tee of Tampa Bay started a program about a month ago that is held at Nuccio Park and Sulphur Springs Park. There is also a program at Rogers Park.
"Part of our mission is to try to get as many kids as possible interested in golf," First Tee of Tampa Bay director Jeff Leonard said.
Waltman and Darling shared a vision. They plan to continue working with disadvantaged youths because they believe they are making a difference.
"We've touched at least over 200 students," Darling said. "I've had several parents approach me with tears in their eyes when they talk about what the program has done for their kids. One grandparent told me that they've seen a big change in their (grandchild's) aggression since they started playing golf. Don't tell me it doesn't work because I've seen it work."
Rodney Page can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or (727) 893-8810.