Golf team has stroke of good fortune

Inner city students gain broad support

June 10, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Last winter, when they were clutching beat-up golf clubs for the first time - swinging wildly from an abandoned East Baltimore lot across the street from the state penitentiary - who could have foreseen the scrappy little golf team from St. FrancesAcademy would be so well supported?

Who could have seen them hobnobbing with the pros, getting decked out in new duds, being profiled on TV and by national golf magazines, or accepting free lessons at country clubs?

"It is kind of unbelievable when you think about it," said Ryan Mitchell, 15, a member of the inner city school's team who, like most of the other boys on the squad, had never set foot on a golf course until this year. "It makes you feel good that a lot of people out there are so willing to help us. We're just hoping to get better."

Last month, an article on the St. Frances squad's inaugural season appeared in The Sun, detailing lopsided losses against suburban schools whose players grew up with the game. Since then, supporters have streamed through the doors of the 172-year-old academy at 501 E. Chase St. Located in one of the city's roughest neighborhoods, the school is run by the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the country's first order of African-American Catholic nuns.

In a third-floor storage room at the school are some of the results: 12 golf bags stuffed with clubs and putters, boxes of clothing, shoes, golf shirts and sweaters, white cardigans with blue and red striped collars; bags of balls, videotapes on driving, books on the short game, carts and caps and soft covers that members of St. Frances' future golf teams will be able to put atop their drivers.

The team has been contacted by Golfworldmagazine for a feature story and had a live appearance on a local television talk show, where the players showed off their practice routine, which includes hitting balls from the vacant lot shadowed by the Maryland Penitentiary, some of them landing on drug corners.

Golf enthusiasts have sent cash to the school, with some of the money going go to the team and some to a St. Frances scholarship fund. The school is regarded as one of the most successful educational institutions in the city because nearly all of its students, mostly poor and black, go to college.

"Seems like ... someone calls us everyday to offer some assistance," said Tom Nealis, the academy's development director. Nealis said most of the offers were from suburban golfers, some offering free lessons at private courses. Each member of the team, whose players originally learned the game last winter with secondhand gear gathered by the school, now has his own golf bag and set of clubs.

Last week, Nealis drove the boys to the pro golf tour's Kemper Open, played in Potomac. The team was invited by golf enthusiasts and honored at a breakfast attended by some of the top pros in the game. Mitchell and his teammates got tips from pro Steve Lowrey, who came close to winning the tournament.

Another player gave Mitchell one of his clubs. "A five wood," Mitchell said. "He said he once won a tournament with it."

One volunteer is organizing a fund-raising golf tournament, planned for next October.

"I'm gonna do whatever I can to help them," said Jimmy Rosenfield,39, the owner of Lightning Golf and Promotions, an Owings Mills-based sports advertising company.

Rosenfield formed a committee of local business people and received support from Legg Mason Funds, who have dedicated $10,000 to sponsor a golf benefit tentatively planned for next fall. And 77-year-old Jerry Weiner of Pikesville got his best golfing buddies to give up some of their equipment.

"It was one of the most moving experiences I've had in a long while," said Weiner, the former CEO of a manufacturing company, of the trip he took to St. Frances with a car full of goods. "I got a little lost looking for the school, and I guess that drove the point home. If there ever was a tough place to live, that place is it."

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