Golf Course Provides Oasis For Low-Income Kids

All summer long, kids from a gritty neighborhood in Providence, R.I., have been escaping to a golf course and driving range carved out of a vacant lot. At Button Hole, a new generation is learning golf for a dollar a game.

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CORNISH: All summer, dozens of lower-income kids in Providence, Rhode Island learned golf. They spent their days on a nine-hole course, an oasis in a gritty neighborhood.

Reporter John Bender went to the golf course and sent this report.

JOHN BENDER, BYLINE: Standing on a putting green at the edge of the course, you can see all 26 lush acres. Hills slope down to a small pond. A driving range sits on the opposite end.

Course Director PJ Fox remembers when this space was very different.

PJ FOX: Everything from cars being dumped, dirt bikes being driven, prostitution, drug deals - unfortunately there was a homicide - a double homicide up here.

BENDER: A local businessman and avid golfer helped secure the land for use as a golf course 13 years ago. The course is called Button Hole. During Providence's manufacturing days, scores of buttons washed ashore from a nearby shoe factory. Fox says the location gives the kids access, and the price provides the opportunity to learn how to play.

FOX: Once you go through one of our six week programs, a kid becomes what we call a Button Hole kid, and they're allowed to hit a bucket of balls and play a course for a dollar until they're 18 years old.

BENDER: Down on the driving range, 12-year-old Mariah Nugent shows off her clubs.

MARIAH NUGENT: And these are all my irons, and I have this which is my putter which I play on the putting green. And now I just pulled all of these out. (Laughter).

BENDER: Nugent never played golf before Button Hole. Now she's setting up for a drive.

MARIAH: Yeah, you might want to stand behind the black line so I don't hit you.

BENDER: She leans back, swings and...

MARIAH: That did not go well.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Let me show you how it's done.

BENDER: Nugent may not be hitting any hole-in-ones, but she's noticing that golf is helping her in school.

MARIAH: I'd say I've gotten better at math. I really have because I have to, like, measure the distances between, like, how far I'm going to hit it and what angle I'm going to hit it at.

BENDER: Imani Ramirez is often spotted lugging his bulky golf bag down Providence city streets.

IMANI RAMIREZ: My mom signed me up. So I didn't want to do it, but she forced me to come. I thought golf was a boring sport.

BENDER: That was a year ago. Now his mom, Ivette Laboy, can't keep him away and says this passion might never have surfaced without Button Hole.

IVETTE LABOY: You know, I can't afford it. I know it's expensive sport. But they have helped. So he loves it. He can be here every day if you let him.

BENDER: Program head PJ Fox says not only is golf good for the kids, but kids are good for golf, breathing new life into a sport where membership is dying in some places.

FOX: If golf is to survive, there needs to be facilities like Button Hole that can help teach the kids what it means to be successful so that private clubs can - will have members that can afford it.

BENDER: Over on a putting green, a group of kids gather around the hole taking practice shots. One by one, they each miss until finally...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: That looks good just like that. That's the way you putt it.

(CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Nice. He saw it. He saw it.

BENDER: For NPR News, I'm John Bender in Providence.

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