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Young golfers learn the ins, outs of the sport

Florida Times-Union - 7/11/2019

The three Davis brothers counted down the days until they went back to golf camp.

Their mother, Megan Davis, would tell them HUG/HEAL Golf Camp, a three-day golfing camp at TPC Sawgrass for children with autism, was a week or two away.

"No, Mom, it's nine days," they would reply, knowing the exact count.

Ian, 9, is not on the autism spectrum, but his younger brothers, Liam, 7, and Camden, 5, were diagnosed last June. The Davis boys attended the golf camp for the first time last summer.

It was the first time they had ever golfed, and "they were hooked," their mom said.

The brothers and 11 other campers spent July 8-10 learning golf skills from professionals, exploring the two courses at TPC Sawgrass and making friends.

AN INSTANT HIT

In 2004, Leslie Weed co-founded the HEAL Foundation, a northeast Florida nonprofit that serves the autism community.

In 2008, she received a call from Jarrod Kogos, a young man who had been diagnosed with Asperger's at 12 and had recently survived brain cancer.

Kogos' love for golf began soon after his Asperger's diagnosis. He had played on his high school golf team and knew all about golf courses designed by Weed's husband, Bobby.

"When I picked up golf, it mellowed me," he said.

Years later, golf helped him walk again, Weed said. After his brain tumor was removed, Kogos was wheelchair-bound for a few years, but he would go to the driving range and stand up for long enough to hit a golf ball.

Now, a few days away from his 32nd birthday, he walks with a walker and still golfs.

Back in 2008, he began to think golf could help others like it had helped him, and he asked for Weed's help in starting his own nonprofit.

But Weed offered him another option, one that didn't involve six months of paperwork: Start a golf camp instead of a nonprofit, and apply for a grant from HEAL to fund it.

The camp was a hit, Weed said, and HUG, HEAL and TPC Sawgrass have used that model to host 11 annual camps. HUG raises money on its own, and the grant from HEAL supplements that. This year, Weed said the HEAL grant is about $1,600.

TPC Sawgrass also gives the camp a good deal for use of its facility and golf professionals.

"It's not what it would cost me to take a golf lesson, I can tell you that," Weed joked.

This year, seven golf pros helped with the 15 campers. HEAL Executive Director Jason Gurka said that "real personal" ratio is one of the special things about the camp.

The campers are learning from the best teachers, Weed said. The same people who train some of the best golfers in the world get "down on their knees" to teach the basics of golf to kids, she said.

Weed said everyone loves it: the kids, the pros, the parents.

'FABULOUS SPORT'

On the last morning of camp, after some stretching and a game of tag, 15 boys ranging from ages 4 to 15 piled onto golf carts for a scavenger hunt around the golf courses.

The camp is open to all, and there have been female campers in the past, but four out of five individuals with autism are male, Weed said.

The Davis brothers piled into one six-person golf cart; both Ian and Liam wanted shotgun. The older brother prevailed, and the caravan of golf carts set out to explore the grounds.

Each boy had a clipboard and pencil in hand to fill out the Nature Scorecard. The boys' task was to find all the items on the scorecard, ranging from ospreys to palm trees to rakes to Coach Bobby.

Other than an alligator, assistant golf professional Bobby Betts was the item many campers most wanted to find.

"Where could Coach Bobby be?" Ian wondered.

"He's a really good hider," Liam said.

Finally, Coach Bobby was found up a tree. The caravan stopped to allow all the boys to wave up at him as he called out, "Everybody check me off!" Liam took the opportunity to squeeze into the front seat by his brother, and then it was off to look for more items to check off the list.

Weed said the scavenger hunt is a great way for the kids to learn about golf courses and appreciate the beauty around them.

After a quick break for juice boxes and fruit snacks, it was finally time to break out the golf clubs.

On Monday, the campers learned putting, first with plastic clubs and tennis balls, then with real equipment. Tuesday's lesson was chipping. On the last day, it was time to put everything together with full swing practice.

The campers were stowed in "safety boxes"-- four bright orange squares taped onto the grass. Professionals called up campers one at a time to practice their swings.

"Woah!" kids yelled as 9-year-old Hunter Burke's golf ball went flying.

Burke attended camp for the fourth time this summer and golfs sometimes in his free time, too. He said that he doesn't do well with teams, so golf is a good sport for him. That's not the only appeal, though.

"I get to hit stuff with a club," he said. "Everybody likes that about golfing, basically."

Weed said golf is a "fabulous sport" for children with autism because one of their primary challenges is motor skills. Golf allows them to practice without a team, often with one-on-one instruction.

There's a rhythm to it, Weed said. "It slows the brain down so their body can catch up."

After hitting practice, the professionals lined up the kids and made a pyramid out of golf ball baskets. Their mission: Hit a golf ball and knock the pyramid down.

Not a single basket fell during the game. "It's like they're glued," Ian Davis said.

Not just campers took their shot; Jarrod Kogos joined the back of the line, sitting on his walker's seat as he waited his turn.

After every camper had tried, he walked up to the tee, denying someone's offer to help him walk.

He swung, hit the ball, made contact with a basket. But the pyramid still stood.

FOR MOMS, TOO

After a few hits, Kogos made his way back to his golf cart, with his clubs in the back.

His mom, like she had been all day, drove him to their next destination.

Colleen Kogos said this camp is good for moms, too. "You think your kid is the only one," she said, but then you start talking to the parents around you.

Every child on the autism spectrum is different, said Megan Davis. But she said it's nice to have an "exchange of information" with parents who've had similar experiences.

Hannah Burke, Hunter's mom, agreed. At the camp, moms can talk and realize they're not the only ones figuring out how to parent children with autism.

The camp typically ends with campers golfing the famous 17th hole-- Hunter's favorite part of the camp, and why his dad always comes to watch him on the final day.

This year, though, Dye's Valley Course (co-designed by Bobby Weed) was closed on the final day, so campers spread out over a few holes on that course. Hannah Burke and Megan Davis followed their sons to hole 10.

Hunter stepped up to the tee, about 150 yards from the hole.

"Show 'em who's boss!" Ian called to him.

Hunter swung a few times, hitting the grass rather than the ball. "I'm showing the grass who's boss," he called back.

Then he hit the ball, again impressing his fellow campers and professionals.

Then the golfing was done, and the campers and their families took one more golf cart ride back to the clubhouse. After jumping from their golf cart, Hunter and Ian walked with their arms slung around each other's shoulders.

"We're friends now!" Hunter called back to his mom, as they walked into the clubhouse for lunch, an awards ceremony and the end of another year of golf camp.

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