Alternative school’s golf team ready for South Side PGA-caliber course

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Felipe Talavera (right), a member of the new golf team at Excel Academy of South Shore, gets instruction from Chicago Parks Golf Alliance mentor Lorne Boutte at South Shore Golf Course. | Photo by Melanie Brown/CPGA

After his classes at Excel Academy of South Shore on a recent afternoon, Felipe Talavera hurried the five blocks over to South Shore Cultural Center. He didn’t want to be late.

Thursday is practice day for the golf team formed last month at Excel, an alternative high school for students ages 15 to 21 who are behind in their studies.

The six boys and four girls were introduced to the sport after Excel Executive Director Anthony Haley Jr. saw opportunity for his kids in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s proposal to merge the Jackson Park and South Shore golf courses into a Tiger Woods-designed, PGA-caliber course.

“A few weeks ago, we were in [homeroom], and Mr. Haley made an announcement asking if anyone was interested in golf,” said Felipe, a Hispanic youth who lives in South Shore. He is a junior at Excel.

“Other kids kind of groaned. Like, golf, dude? I like, smiled,” the 17-year-old said.

“My first experience with golf was watching ‘Happy Gilmore’ on Netflix. But for my 14th birthday, my uncle took me out to the driving range. The pros on TV made it look a lot easier, but overall, I liked it. I don’t really care about other people’s opinions. If I like something, I’m going to do it.”

Before their school was adopted by the group behind the merger of the two golf courses, Felipe and his teammates had never considered golf a sport to pursue. Not surprisingly. You won’t find it at many inner-city schools.

But there they were at the South Shore Golf Course this day, immersed in the world of backswings and birdies, practicing putts under the watchful eyes and tutelage of mentors from the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance.

Members of the new golf team at Excel Academy of South Shore get high-fives from Chicago Parks Golf Alliance co-founder and director Michael Ruemmler during practice at South Shore Golf Course. | Photo by Melanie Brown/CPGA

Members of the new golf team at Excel Academy of South Shore get high-fives from Chicago Parks Golf Alliance co-founder and director Michael Ruemmler during practice at South Shore Golf Course. | Photo by Melanie Brown/CPGA

“Mondays, the team practices at GolfTEC on Halsted. The pros there have donated their time and energy to teach them for an hour. We come down on Thursday afternoon and practice what they learned on Monday,” said Michael Ruemmler, a Golf Alliance co-founder and director.

“Today, we worked on our putting a little bit, then worked on our pitch shots. They did pretty well,” Ruemmler said. “Felipe’s the most advanced, because he had a little bit of instruction from his uncle, and I think he’s been the only one who has been taking his clubs home so he can practice.”

It was in December that the mayor announced his $30 million plan to place a championship-caliber golf course adjacent to the Barack Obama Presidential Center in Jackson Park. Ruemmler’s group is expected to raise private money to cover 80 percent of the cost to create a single, 18-hole course from the existing 18-hole Jackson Park and 9-hole, par-3 South Shore courses.

Public money will pay for shoreline improvements and new underpasses — at 67th Street and South Shore Drive, and 66th Street and Jeffery Boulevard — as well as the potential closing of Marquette Drive between Cornell and Lake Shore Drive.

The Golf Alliance doesn’t expect to present final plans before early summer.

But as the Park District-approved proposal works its way through community hearings, residents consistently have demanded the project wreak less havoc on area terrain; stimulate economic development; retain community affordability and accessibility; and include a youth component.

“The themes we heard the most were about affordability and access and doing more for kids. So yes, there’s this grand vision of a restored golf course, but we don’t need to wait for that. There’s a lot of people working very hard to show some immediate results for the community,” said Brian Hogan, another Golf Alliance co-founder and director.

“This team from Excel has been a big piece of it. The Alliance bought all the irons, and the Chicago District Golf Association donated the woods and putters and the bags so each kid was able to get a set,” he said.

Felipe cherishes his. “The thing that surprised me most was the clubs were brand spanking new. Like, not one ball had hit them yet. It was pretty cool,” he said.

The Jackson Park and South Shore Cultural Center advisory councils helped spread the word about its need for mentors. The group still would welcome volunteers. The six who came out this day included retired railroad worker Reggie Seay and Lorne Boutte, a 2013 Chicago State University graduate who’d been captain of its golf team and was coaching Felipe.

Felipe Talavera | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times Media

Felipe Talavera | Maudlyne Ihejirika/Sun-Times Media

“It’s cool to be around other people who share the same likes as you,” said Felipe. “Today he taught me to just square up to the ball, and stroke through, instead of trying to smack at it, to just follow through.”

A Western Golf Association caddy program will provide jobs and mentoring this summer to a couple dozen high school teens at Jackson Park Golf Course. A slew of applications are being vetted.

“We’ll fund caddies available at no cost to players, though we’ll ask golfers to provide introduction to golf, and mentoring elements, career guidance,” said Hogan. “We want to reach kids like Felipe who might have been exposed to golf at some point but drifted away, and those who’d never be at a golf course but for this project.”

Felipe’s a quick learner and his game is improving. After practice is over and all others have left, he’s still there swinging away.

“The reason I like it is because it’s just you,” Felipe said. “Like, if you hit a bad shot, you can’t blame it on your teammates or anything. It’s your fault, and you know what you need to improve on. Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and it’s only you out there, hitting balls your hardest and seeing how far they go. That’s the fun part. I’m feeling like if I work hard, maybe I can go somewhere with this.”

Jordan Edwards (right), a member of the new golf team at Excel Academy of South Shore gets putting tips from Chicago Parks Golf Alliance mentor Reggie Seay at South Shore Golf Course. | Photo by Melanie Brown/CPGA

Jordan Edwards (right), a member of the new golf team at Excel Academy of South Shore gets putting tips from Chicago Parks Golf Alliance mentor Reggie Seay at South Shore Golf Course. | Photo by Melanie Brown/CPGA

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