Imagination, says the ebony-skinned captain of Baltimore's most unusual high school golf team, is the key to learning the game in the inner-city.
So a vacant, weed-filled lot shadowed by the Maryland State Penitentiary becomes your fairway, the inmates your gallery. The rooftop of a warehouse and an abandoned fried chicken joint become your rough. Homeless men who push stolen grocery carts in front of you during practice are mobile water hazards.
And out of bounds is nearby Greenmount Avenue. Please try to keep your balls from going there, you wouldn't want to disturb drug dealers, hit police cars or break a window at Courtside Bailbond Inc.
"If you can play here," says the captain, 17-year-old LeRoy McDuffie, as he practices his sand game from a patch of dirt and rocks, "you oughta be able to play anywhere."
It's practice time for the golf team at St. FrancesAcademy, the tiny, mostly African-American Roman Catholic school at 501 E. Chase St., in the belly of one of East Baltimore's roughest neighborhoods. The team's six players are lined up on the ragged lot, about one-fourth the size of a football filed, sitting behind the school across the street from the pen.
They are doing what ordinary golfers do: swinging away, tinkering, balancing and fussing. But these players, five of whom had never touched a golf club or even thought of playing the game until a few months ago, are far from ordinary.
Only a few Baltimore schools have golf teams. They are all private; mostly upper crust - elite schools such as Gilman and Friends. This spring, St. Frances joined them.
Predominantly black and poor, the 172-year-old school is fielding its first golf team; making it, in the words of an administrator there, the "only high school golf team from the 'hood."
Today, St. Frances' squad of eager teen-age boys will head to Columbia to play fellow Catholic high school Cardinal Gibbons. It will be the third and last match of the season for St. Frances, which is playing a limited "practice" schedule this year. It will also be just the fourth time most of the players, still learning the game, have stepped on a golf course.
To a man, the players know they will be soundly defeated, just as they were in their first two matches, including the one against Gilman's junior varsity, whose players, according to St. Frances freshman Brian James,15, looked like they were "born playing golf."
Still, they are not deterred.
"We know we'll probably lose every time out," says McDuffie,who had played golf three times before this year, making him the only player with experience. "But we're making a pretty strong statement just by showing up. Those other guys don't see too many teen-age golfers from where we come from. And we are showing ourselves that we've come a long, long way."
When they first practiced, the St. Frances students thought golf would be simple. They'd played computer golf games and had seen Tiger Woods on television, figuring kids with brown skin and curly hair could make their way into the game, even become rich and famous doing it.
"Guess we had another thing coming," says James Smith Jr.,15.
There were at least 20 would-be players that first tryout last fall, says coach Darrell Hopkins, a fitness coach at a local gym who graduated from St. Frances in 1980 and returned this year as a volunteer to bring the game he loves to the kids. Playing with used equipment the school had scraped together, the boys first grasped the clubs like baseball bats.
They swung wildly, again-and-again-and-again. Few made contact. Twenty hopefuls quickly became six.
"About as far as we could get it was over by those old bricks," remembers Smith, pointing to the remnants of a building's brick foundation, sitting in the lot, just 10 feet away.
Through the winter they thought about, dreamed of and concentrated on the game.
They only ventured onto a course one time, preferring to learn how to make steady contact on the lot. Practice sessions were sometimes disturbed by addicts and homeless men and women pushing grocery carts through the weeds, and by cat calls and whistles from jail inmates harassing women who occasionally walk by the prison.
"At least they haven't been commenting on our games," Hopkins deadpans about the prisoners' shouts.
"Just another day in East Baltimore," McDuffie notes, taking a swing at a ball that ends up near bushes where rats have been spotted.
These days, most of the balls are hit in the air. The lot is in the middle of a block and the boys shoot toward the two-story back retaining wall of the warehouse and the out-of-business Kang's Fried Chicken, about 25 yards from where they tee-off. Many make it to the wall now, and the balls create a high pitched pinging noise as they hit cinderblock.
Sometimes the balls arc high and come down on the roof. (It's a mistake when they do that, winks Smith, who recently fired the team's only hole-in-one when his ball kerplunked straight into the warehouse's drainpipe.)
Occasionally, when they turn into the ball just so, the players send practice balls soaring over the warehouse and the chicken shack; they land on Greenmount Avenue, the nearest street over.
"Please, please, don't hit any more balls on Greenmount, shorten your swing," McDuffie begged his mates early last week, reminding them of the police and the angry man who walked onto the lot recently, claiming cars were getting hit and people were dodging little white balls. "We don't want trouble, guys."
McDuffie is typical of his teammates. Though he lives on North Avenue where violence is common, he is a straight-and-narrow kid with a solid, supportive family. He is not an "at-risk" kid. He simply lives and goes to school in the midst of danger.
"I hope to make it to M.I.T. one day, maybe even play on their golf team," says the lanky, thin-hipped and earnest McDuffie, the kind who reminds his fellow golfers not to swear, not to give up and not to be intimidated on the golf course.
And not to drive balls onto Greenmount Avenue.
Hopkins, the coach who believes golf can be used to teach discipline, hopes next year's team will have a few kids struggling to make sense of growing up and going to school in such difficult territory.
"This is part of the plan," he says, standing near the first tee of the Clifton Park Municipal golf course, just before a match against Our Lady of Mount Carmel School last week. "I had some of the tougher kids try out this year, but they couldn't hack the discipline of the game. I think by having these kids lead the way ... we'll get that more stubborn type of kid to hang with it next year. And we'll actually know what we are doing."
Just moments after he says this, Chris Hughes, 16, smacks his fourth off-kilter ball from the fairway of the first hole. The ball travels 15 feet, ricochets off three trees, and slams into onlooker's chest.
"Whoops!" says Hughes. "Sorry."
A few minutes later, Hughes' ball spins in a wicked left-right curl off his driver. It falls from the sky, barely misses the head of a Mount Carmel golfer playing on another fairway and hits another Mount Carmel golfer in the foot.
"Anybody see my ball?" Hughes asks moments later.
Moments after that, on another hole, Smith hits a seven iron that angles into a teammate's gut. Ryan Mitchell crumples to the ground. "We're getting better," Mitchell would say later, rubbing his stomach. "But I guess we need to work on accuracy."
The match against Mount Carmel is like the match against Gilman: a study in contrasts.
The Mount Carmel players say they've never played on a city course. They are all white. Many of them play most every day, some at country clubs. They use the best equipment and have Ping golf socks wrapped around their drivers. They have, for the most part, rhythmic, corkscrew swings. They finish each shot by following through on their swings, a technique St. Frances' players sometimes forget.
The St. Frances squad starts out tentatively. At first they mangle the course.
"'Chackalackalack!' that's what we say when our shots skim on the ground instead of making it in the air," Smith exclaims.
"I don't really care how they are doing now," says Hopkins, who approached the school in the fall with the idea of fielding a team. "Just having them play. It's beautiful. It's all I could ask for."
By the last hole, the boys from St. Frances are settled down and faring better.
"I'm feeling it now," exclaims the proud McDuffie, even though by now he's hardly even keeping score, since he's lost every hole. "Next year, after a summer of hard practice, I think St. Frances is really gonna turn some heads. We really are."
At the last hole, the par three 10th, the captain launches a seven iron. He has smoothness and rhythm and a follow-through. His ball rises in a high parabola and lands softly on the green. It misses the pin, but not by much.