By Ed Sherman

Lorne Boutte is trying to get Willie Cooper to feel what it is like to swing a golf club.

“Smooth tempo through the ball,” Boutte says. “Nice and smooth.”

Cooper takes the club back haltingly, and the ball skitters weakly to the right. He glances up at Boutte with that strained “golf is hard” look on his face.

Boutte places another ball down at Cooper’s feet, and almost in a soothing whisper says, “Smooothhh.”

This time, Cooper is a bit more fluid. Solid contact is made, and the ball pounds hard into the net. Success, in relative beginner terms, is achieved, as Boutte and Cooper celebrate with a high five.

Today’s lesson, and more like it, involve a program to introduce golf to students at Excel Academy of South Shore, an alternative high school for students ages 15 to 21. Each week, these new golfers come to South Shore Golf Course to be mentored by members of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance and volunteers like Boutte, a former golfer at Chicago State.

Brian Hogan, Co-Founder and Director of the Chicago Parks Golf Alliance, says the program is part of the orgainization’s overall mission. While the ultimate goal, a restoration combining the Jackson Park and South Shore Golf Courses into a marquis public 18-hole layout along with upgraded learning facilities, remains a few years away, working with the Excel students shows the project already is having an impact on the local community.

“This is not just a project where you have a few years of design and construction, and then re-open the course,” Hogan said. “This program is about providing immediate results for the community. We want to create more youth opportunities from the outset.”

When it came to sports, Cooper played basketball and did some boxing. Now he thinks he can be a golfer too.

“I’ve always wanted to learn the game,” Willie said. “You’ve got to be a good thinker to play this game. I like that.”

Felipe Talavera said he jumped at the opportunity when Excel’s School Director Anthony Haley Jr. informed the students about the new Chicago Parks Golf Alliance program.

“I like the fact that golf is just you,” Talavera said. “You can’t blame anyone else if you hit a bad shot. You have to do it yourself.”

The genesis of the program came when Michael Ruemmler, Co-Founder and Director of the CPGA, broached the subject to Haley last fall. 

“We have a school four blocks from South Shore with students interested in athletics,” Ruemmler said. “I said (to Haley), ‘Would you guys like to have a golf team?’ He looked kind of surprised. He didn’t see that coming.”

Ruemmler quickly started to put things in motion. The CPGA arranged to provide clubs for these students. The Alliance bought all the irons, and the Chicago District Golf Association donated the woods and putters and the bags so each golfer was able to get a set.

“We needed to provide them with the essential equipment to get them started,” Ruemmler said.

Ruemmler knew Ben Thulin, the teaching professional at the GolfTec facility at 2847 N. Halsted in Chicago, wanted him and his fellow professionals to find a way to give back to the community. Ruemmler mentioned the Excel program.

“Before I could finish, Ben said, ‘I’m in,'” Ruemmler said. 

As a result, the Excel students now take lessons every Monday at GolfTec with Thulin and the other professionals. Then they have Thursday sessions at South Shore’s short-game area right next to the lake. The sounds of club meeting ball are mixed in with the continuous beat of the waves hitting the shoreline. 

“Nice setting to learn the game, but these worn down mats and ripped netting show need for improved practice facilities.” Hogan said.

The student-mentor relationship is the biggest asset of the program. That’s why Boutte is volunteering his time. He knows how golf has impacted his life.

“I wouldn’t be playing golf if someone didn’t take me under his wing,” said Boutte, who played high school golf at Rich South. “I wanted to give that opportunity to someone else.”

Golf led to Boutte receiving a scholarship to play at Chicago State. More importantly, he says, “It kept me on the right path.”

“I have some friends who got in trouble. They’re not doing the right thing,” Boutte said. “Golf gave me focus. It taught me discipline and good habits.”

Another volunteer, Mark Nakayama, who works in an energy and commercial real estate business, believes the benefits of playing golf are immense.

“It’s such a great game,” Nakayama said. “They can have so many positive experiences. Some of these kids have a lot of talent. It’s just a matter of giving them the opportunity.”

Ruemmler says the programming is rewarding for everyone involved.

“It’s really gratifying when you have a kid who is struggling, and all of the sudden, makes a putt or you hear that click on a golf ball,” Ruemmler said. “Then he or she breaks into a big smile. It makes your day.”

Cooper now is one of those new golfers getting to enjoy the game. Looking out into the distance, he sees some of the holes at South Shore.

“They look so far away,” Cooper said.

Cooper is told everyone feels that way when they first start to play the game. His outlook then brightens.

“I think I’ll get better with more practice,” Cooper said.

There you go; Cooper already sounds like a golfer.