Julio Dutan, an 11-year-old whose glasses seem only to make his eyes wider with possibility, doesn't let golf's frustrations dull his persistence. He just swings and smiles. Then he runs after the ball and picks it up against the edge of a fence. It's a fence bordering left field of a baseball diamond in Corona, Queens, at Park of the Americas. Just to his right is a playground. Just beyond the fence is a bodega, its green, white and red awning proclaiming: Venta de productos mexicanos e hispanos en general.
Clearly, Julio isn't anywhere near a golf course, but he hopes to be soon. For now, he's perfecting his new favorite game's basics in a park, hitting shots off artificial-turf strips and making putts on a threadbare, rolled-up putting mat.
"I think the hardest part is the concentration," he says with a grin. "Sometimes when you swing you just miss the ball. But I just do more practice swings. I don't get mad. It's just a game, and you're there to have fun."
Julio is one of three dozen kids swinging and laughing and learning in the morning session of advanced beginners golf, provided for free by the City Parks Foundation's summer sports program at dozens of parks across the city.
The idea started in 2000 with Mike Silverman, director of sports for City Parks Foundation, a nonprofit whose sports, arts, education and city development programs reach almost half a million people each year in New York's more than 350 parks, recreation centers and schools. Now, more than 1,000 kids a summer get to experience golf twice a week. Nearly half are eligible for free lunch programs in school.
The organization's summer golf programs are completely free, and hundreds of kids have access to golf cards that get them on 10 of the city's public golf courses for a $1 green fee. Its junior learning center, wedged into a previously ignored corner of Dyker Beach Golf Course, offers a practice range, practice putting green, short-game area, clubhouse and classroom, as well as a six-hole short course, at no cost.
"Anyone who's played sports has experienced that ah-ha moment, that first time that a sport clicked with them. We're trying to get kids to feel that; that's our goal," says Silverman, who started by bringing free tennis to New York's kids at the parks in their neighborhoods even when there wasn't a tennis court or net to be found.
The golf program is a smartly downsized approach to the game that can turn any open space into a practice area where greens are marked off with yellow-rope circles and donated clubs stored in lockboxes. What makes it work are passionate teachers and coaches, pied pipers with the city kids hanging on their every word.
"We're the support system," says Bill Niklaus, City Parks director of golf, between cracking up a group of 6-year-olds by explaining the difference between the heel, toe and face on a golf club by pointing to his nose. "Our sport needs a future. I think this is it."
Silverman concedes that golf for city kids can be a hard sell, but more than a decade after starting, he's got numbers, a multimillion-dollar learning center supported by charitable donations, and kids who started on those playgrounds now winning city-wide golf titles and earning golf scholarships.
As proud as Silverman is of players like Rebecca Markunas (sophomore golfer at Lehigh University) or Rebecca and Chris Chan (twins who won last year's Public School Athletic League's individual golf titles), he'll also tell you elite golfers isn't what this is about. Golf might never be the "city game" that basketball is, but it's got an undeniable appeal and more long-term benefits. "Ultimately, what we want to do is to get these kids to associate a golf club with fun," he says.
In other words, Julio.