LUCAS — Harrison Bale smiled as he practiced chipping golf balls with his grandfather.
They were standing next to the putting green at Barren River Lake State Resort Park on Monday evening, and the 4-year-old was one of many young golfers participating in the Tee to Green of Barren County program.
Bale then walked toward a golf cart in order to practice some shots on the course. When asked what is his favorite part about the sport, the young golfer smiled and said: “My favorite is all of it.”
The Tee to Green program, which is in its 10th year in Barren County, is sponsored by the Glasgow Rotary Club and an anonymous supporter.
“Over the 10 years, we’ve probably had over 200 kids introduced to the game of golf,” said Johnny Belcher, who coached golf at Glasgow and Caverna high schools for over 20 years.
Belcher said they usually meet at Willow Oaks Golf Club at 5:30 p.m. on Mondays from the end of May to the end of July.
“I usually give them a little instruction before they play, and then usually a mentor or a parent goes out and supervises them, talks to them, becomes their friend,” Belcher said, adding that he’s not trying to turn any of the kids into high school golfers. “I’m just trying to introduce them to the game if they’ve never had the opportunity to play.”
Some of the kids in the program have gone on to become high school players for both Barren County and Glasgow, and about half of the children in the program have come from the Boys and Girls Club of Glasgow-Barren County, Belcher said.
“Any kid can play,” he added. “I’m a big junior golf advocate, and I always have been.
“I’ll take any kid from Glasgow, Barren County, Caverna, Hart County, Monroe County, Metcalfe County — I’ve had them from all schools. I don’t care where they go to school, I just want them to play golf.”
The future of golf in America is the youth, Belcher said.
“Golf is not as popular as it was 20 years ago, and that concerns me,” he said. “It’s a sport that’s quit growing and become stagnant. Golf courses are closing, shutting down, and the reason why is that families can’t afford it — and they don’t have time for it. They can’t afford it because they have to buy everybody a cell phone, and to travel all over in their other sports.
“We want our kids involved in sports and I’m really an advocate of that, but you can do it too much.”
Belcher said he loves the game of golf because it’s the only sport where “it’s just you” and every shot counts.
“Any other sport, if you’re playing bad, you can sit out and somebody can take your place,” he said. “Or you get two strikes. You get an extra serve in tennis. You get extra foul shots.
“(In golf), you don’t get any extra shots, and then you’re facing the elements. You’ve got the wind, the cold, the grass, the type of grass, the speed of the greens.”
Golf also teaches character since it’s the only sport “where you call a penalty on yourself,” Belcher said, adding that he has disqualified himself in tournaments as an amateur.
“Nobody knew I had done anything wrong,” he said. “I realized I had before I signed my scorecard, and then I disqualified myself.”
Belcher said kids who play the game of golf generally become good people.
“I’ve never seen a golfer get in trouble,” he said. “I’ve never seen them turn out bad.”
When asked what he most enjoys about the Tee to Green program, Belcher said, “Seeing them get it airborne for the first time.”
“That’s my thrill,” he said. “I’ve instructed in the U.S. Women’s Open before … and I like seeing somebody get it airborne for the first time, whether it’s an 8-year-old kid or a 70-year-old woman. When I see them get it airborne for the first time, they feel like they’ve accomplished something.
“And they say, ‘Wow, I did it!’”
Belcher is currently seeking mentors for next year’s Tee to Green program. Community members who are interested may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.