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Buffalo students go fore golf

Fourteen-year-old Alex Kubiniec didn’t hesitate when asked to describe his golf game. “A lot of shanks,” the Tapestry Charter School eighth-grader said with a laugh.

But that was before Alex and 15 other Buffalo school children went through two hours of low-key golf lessons Monday morning at picturesque Park Country Club in Amherst.

It was all part of First Tee of Western New York’s Kids First Golf Classic, which attracted 22 students, ages 10 to 14, throughout the day from Tapestry, Westminster Community Charter School and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Buffalo.

This was hands-on instruction, with the First Tee professionals and volunteers all stressing the positives, while also encouraging their pupils to learn from their mistakes, rather than being told what to do. And the golf lessons all tie in with First Tee’s nine core values: respect, responsibility, perseverance, integrity, honesty, confidence, courtesy, sportsmanship and judgment.

“We don’t try to teach the core values per se,” said local First Tee executive director Andrew Bennett. “We try to get the kids to experience them. The philosophy of teaching is very experiential and exploratory.”

So instead of telling a student what he or she did wrong, the instructor might say something like, “What do you think would happen if we tried this?” Bennett explained.

That’s exactly what happened later on the driving range when Alex started hitting golf balls with a seven-iron and later a driver.

“You really swing the club at a nice angle,” Patty Jordan-Smith, First Tee’s director of life-skills programs and instruction, told the obviously athletic Alex.

But then, after learning that Alex also plays baseball and hockey, Jordan-Smith asked him if he could play either sport with his arms almost taped to the front of his body.

Point taken. His hands were too close to his body.

While Alex still hit a few ground balls, he started crushing quite a few shots.

“I learned to not do a full backswing when I’m hitting irons and to start a little farther away” from the ball, he said.

These young, mostly inexperienced golfers learned the basics, like the “L-shaped” backswing and the “Y” formed in the putting stroke between the arms and the putter.

On the driving range, Amari Cooper, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Tapestry, showed obvious improvement as he began smashing a few balls with his left-handed swing. “I learned to keep my arm straight and not bend it when you come back in the L,” he said.

Asked what it felt like to crush one of his drives, Amari smiled and compared it to a winning video-game shot.

“It reminds me of Lebron’s buzzer-beater,” he added.

But these lessons were more than just about knocking a small white ball off a driving range or putting it into the hole.

First Tee has a proven, well defined educational program that promotes character and strong values through the game of golf, its leaders say. The local First Tee organization reached 1,800 students in three different programs last year, Bennett said.

“For me, as an educator, the core values just tie into the game of golf so well,” said Marc LaMorticella, Tapestry’s athletic director. “It’s what makes people successful and productive members of society.”

For example, LaMorticella teaches about the core value of courtesy by asking his students why courtesy is important in golf. They may say that you have to be quiet, take turns and be polite to others.

“And then, in your wrap-up, you ask how courtesy ties in to everyday life,” LaMorticella said.

That means that kids learn how to be courteous through their own everyday living experiences and their own observations, rather than being told to be courteous.

It was interesting to see some of the wide-eyed looks from young city middle-school students, tromping around a large, lush suburban golf course like Park Country Club.

Steve Ebsary, a First Tee coach, talked about how exciting it is for kids to have their worlds expanded with experiences such as Monday’s. “We want to open their eyes to the world, and if golf can expand their vision, it’s a big plus for the individual and society,” he said.

Logan Scott, a Tapestry eighth-grader, was drawn to the gentler, more relaxing pace of golf, and he loved having the lessons taught outside the classroom walls on a warm, partly sunny day.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” Logan said of the whole experience. “Not a lot of kids our age are playing golf, at least in the city.

“And it beats staying in school.”