Do you remember the first time you whacked a golf ball and it went sailing through the air toward its intended target? Or maybe it went to the left or right—or even straight up and behind you. No matter where the ball landed, swinging a club for the first time most likely brought out a giggle or two.
The squeals of delight from a group of Wildwood Elementary School children who picked up golf clubs for the first time this spring certainly didn’t surprise golf professional Tony Simpson. His passion for golf began when he was just 10 years old and grew more intense when he became the driving force behind The Villages Tri-County Junior Golf Inc.
Learning about the sport from Tony and his volunteers became a weekly exercise for students after Tony secured a $28,000 grant from the Florida Sports Foundation Golf License Tag program to add golf into the physical education curriculum of three local schools. In addition to Wildwood Elementary, other participating schools are Wildwood Middle School, and The Villages Charter Middle School.
“Put the ball on the tee and whack it,
but make sure no one is behind you.”— Lindsey Attaway, 9
Lindsey already has a future foursome picked out with fellow fourth
graders Nina Hernandez, Autumn Bowersox, and Beth Williamson.
“My vision is to link the schools and create something like farm teams for the high schools,” says Tony, who is the former com-munity relations director for The Villages Golf Division. “Football has Pop Warner; baseball has T-ball. We need to create programs that will give kids some experience with golf.”
Tony is currently seeking 501(c)(3) status for The Villages Tri-County Junior Golf Inc., which was formed in May 2006 as a non-profit or-ganization. He has single-handedly taken the junior golf organization from merely a vehicle for distributing donated golf clubs to getting it into the schools for six-week instructional programs. Next year he hopes to be in more schools and possibly to create a summer program. His grander vision includes building a golf course that caters only to young golfers.
“Keep your club straight, but make sure
you pick the right size.”— Camiyah Goins, 10
Third grader Camiyah Goins wanted to use a larger club until
Tony showed her how much better she could hit with a smaller one.
“Course accessibility is our biggest challenge,” he explains. “The kids need their own practice greens where they can learn with-out obstructing older, more experienced golfers.”
All of those plans will take money, and Tony is looking into several fund raising activities, including a tournament like the Vinny Pro-Celebrity Invitational in Nashville—a tournament hosted by singer Vince Gill that has raised more $3 million for junior golf pro-grams throughout Tennessee. Such a pro-celebrity tournament could make Tony’s program a viable, self-sustaining entity that would increase youth interest in the life-long sport.
“Hit the ball hard…but not too hard so it won’t crack.”
— Christian Callaway, 7
With a golfing name like Callaway, expect to see
Christian on the fairways in the future.
In the meantime, Tony is content to share the joy of golf with youngsters in the Tri-County area and show them that golf is a great way to improve hand-eye coordination and to learn discipline and patience. He finds creative ways to interest the kids, as with a recent exercise where his students blew up balloons and then practiced swings with the balloons between their arms.
“It’s a perfect exercise for learning to keep your arms straight, and of course, kids love balloons,” he chuckles. “This is straight out of the Golf Channel and works for adults, too.”
The Villages resident Jeff Spangler has volunteered at Wildwood Elementary School for two years, showing students golf basics. He began playing at 15 and is still playing in tournaments at 75. He knows first hand that the students are learning about more than just golf in the weekly sessions.
Tony Simpson secured a Florida Sports Foundation
grant to create golf programs in local schools.
“Golf is a tremendous sport for learning honesty, discipline, and courtesy,” says the grandfather of four. “It’s an easy sport for students to evaluate their own skill levels, too.”
Physical education teachers at the school asked students if they wanted to participate in the weekly golf lessons and the stu-dents with the best attitudes and participation in physical education class were selected. Wildwood physical education teacher Karen Vandemark believes the program and the volunteers have given students opportunities that they would not have had oth-erwise.
“I am not a golfer, so it’s been a huge advantage to have Tony and the volunteers here teach golf,” she says. “It’s a lifetime sport that many of the students may pursue now that they’ve been exposed to it.”
Tips from Wildwood’s Future Golfers
Golf instructor Tony Simpson is seeing some future players even among the young children at Wildwood Elementary, the only elementary school participating so far in The Villages Tri-County Golf Inc. program. He ends each lesson with encouragement, not only about golf but also their other classes and upcoming tests. Tony’s confidence in the students builds their self-esteem, and many are eager to share what they’ve learned. With only a few lessons under their belts, the Wildwood Elementary students already have a few tips to share with other golfers:
“Stand tall and reach for the sky.” —Garrett Cumbie, 9
Garrett hopes to play golf when he gets to college.
“Put your body through (the swing) to get the distance.”—Olivia Kopico, 11
Tony describes Olivia as “a natural” at golf. She’s never played before.
“Stand closer to the ball.” —Maria Cruzado, 10
Maria’s goal is one that every younger sister strives for—beating her older brother who plays golf.
“Grip the club across your palm.” —Missy Caudill, 9
Missy’s favorite part of the lesson was hitting the target—flags placed in the center of the track field where the aspiring golfers practice.
“Keep your feet close together.” —Terrance Williams, 12
This fifth grader says he was hooked on golf the first time he hit a ball over some trees.
“That hand ‘thing’ is important… I mean, the grip.”—Brooke Woodward, 8
When one of her first shots hit inside a small circle that Tony had outlined, Brooke’s confident response was a simple, “There you go.”
“Keep your hands straight.” —Khalil Isaac, 7
Khalil was anxious to share Tony’s balloon tip with his uncle who has taken him to a driving range in Lady Lake. The second grader plans to keep playing.
Want To Know More?
Call Tony Simpson at (352) 267-0619
or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.