IT DIDN'T take long for Joan Lovelace to know the new program at her golf course was right.
She knew soon after Hugo Sanchez walked through the door. He was early, first to arrive.
Wide-eyed Hugo, all of 8 or 9 years old, asked if his name was on the list, said Lovelace, head pro at Columbia's Fairway Hills Golf Course.
"My school signed me up," said the boy, his mother and another family member in tow from the nearby Hannibal Grove apartments, which border a couple of Fairway Hills' holes.
Yes, there was Hugo's name. Running Brook Elementary School hadn't let him down, so the immigrant kid whose mother spoke little English really would be taking summertime golf lessons, virtually for free.
"He started jumping around, and so did the people in his family," Lovelace said. "He was so excited - and he made it to every session. He got a couple buddies to come, too. He's exactly the kind of kid this was intended for."
The program is First Tee of Howard County, part of a national, Professional Golfers Association-backed effort to expose more children, especially those with financial need, to the game.
Call it the Tiger Woods effect; it's a smart thing for the expensive sport to be doing in building a future constituency. First Tee, which has Woods' involvement, provides transportation, clubs, balls, pro instruction and course time.
The county's First Tee program, a Maryland first, was given early impetus by County Councilman C. Vernon Gray and lawyer Richard Talkin, now co-chairmen at the policy level. It centers on the Columbia Association's Fairway Hills Golf Course, where 78 children out of 94 registrants took part this summer - 43 attending the required five-out-of-six sessions to advance to the next level.
With another 20 or so expected to begin lessons this fall, the total of 100 children that the Howard County group set as its first-year objective seems within reach. Next year, the goal is to serve 300.
"It went a lot better than I had anticipated," said Lovelace, who, with assistant Mike Carroll, devised and tweaked the instructional routine, drawing on materials from the national First Tee office. "I had envisioned kids running all around, but it didn't happen. They wanted to learn, and with the volunteers we had, it was a joy - very gratifying to see kids go through this."
A total of 63 registrants came from households with less than $40,000 in annual income; 31 of them were from homes with less than $20,000 in income. Nearly three-quarters were boys. The players were young; 44 were in fifth grade or lower, most from third, fourth and fifth grades. They came from 19 county elementary schools, 13 middle schools and five high schools.
The Columbia Association has plans for a new First Tee classroom on one end of Fairway Hills' clubhouse, with money being put up by the national First Tee organization. A Columbia Association spokesman said the organization is hoping construction can begin in early winter.
To help a bit with expenses, the Columbia Association also is selling 500 bag tags at $5 apiece. Tags are available at either Fairway Hills or Hobbit's Glen.
Finally, a note to anyone who knows Hugo: Tell him Miss Joan is waiting for him to play again. She says he can really hit that ball. And this fall, he will play more on the real course, not just the driving range. Just bring that smile and that enthusiasm.
Along the sidelines
Soccer: The fourth Columbia Classic Soccer Tournament was to be played this weekend, with 90 teams from Maryland and Pennsylvania competing locally.
The event, backed by the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County, has evolved into a traditional fall-season opener. It concludes today, weather permitting. It's much smaller than the better known Columbia Invitational Tournament on Memorial Day weekend and, unlike the Invitational, focuses on the second-level travel squads.
Brackets include boys from age 8 to 15; girls brackets have teams with players from 8 to 19.
Games were scheduled for fields at Howard Community College, Harper's Choice Middle School, Cedar Lane Park and behind the library in Owen Brown village.
Philosophy: With fall sports seasons under way, the much-discussed bugaboo of parents overwhelming their children in youth sports is as alive as ever. But add the Columbia Bulldogs football organization to SAC/HC as local clubs addressing the issue straight up - by posting on their Web sites (and presumably distributing in other ways) their organizational philosophies.
A Bulldogs excerpt: "We expect coaches to maintain a safe, positive and nourishing environment. ... Our coaches will not be judged on their win/loss record but on their `Fun Coefficient.'
"Above all, we will remember that this activity is for the kids. It is our philosophy to provide a strong emphasis on the core fundamentals of football - running, blocking, tackling and passing. Teamwork, commitment, work-ethics, respect and sportsmanship are strongly emphasized."
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