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My Short Tenure as a Girl’s High School Golf Coach

During one of those really pleasant times in one’s life my youngest daughter, Jennifer (an alias to protect the innocent) was daddy’s little buddy and liked to shadow me when permitted, wherever I went just as her older sister had done at a similar age. One afternoon after work I said ”come on sweetheart let’s ride over to the club and pick up my new driver. They called to say it came in today.” She didn’t hesitate one moment and bounded out to the car.

After I picked up the driver at the pro shop, we walked past the practice range on the way back to the parking lot. There were a couple of balls laying there, and she suggested I hit one with the new club. I happened to have a tee in my pocket so I teed a ball and proceeded to whack one. Then my daughter said she would like to hit one. So I teed another ball and handed her the driver and said, “here, have at it“. It was a new graphite shafted, extra length driver which was probably as long as she was tall or certainly close. She was about eight years old at the time. This was probably not the first time she ever swung a golf club but she was certainly not a practiced golfer. She took a stance, gripping the club like she knew what she was doing. She took a big back swing with that long club and then wham, the ball jumped off the clubface, soared long and high into the late evening sky and with a nice little draw landing about 200 yards out.

A man standing nearby let out a gasp. Another fellow who happened to be a friend of mind and father of one of Jennifer’s friends piped in, “Tom, she hit that club a whole lot better than you did”. We had not noticed he was watching from the putting green. Wow, I thought to my self, what a natural swing, this child is gifted. Jennifer was laughing gleefully and jumping around as she realized how she had impressed those watching including her dad.

This moment got Jennifer interested in golf and so she would like to go with me to the practice tee whenever she could and I would let her hit balls with me. I had a set of junior clubs that I had bought for her sister so I let her use them. Most often she preferred hitting my clubs and seemed to hit them better. This went on for several years but Jennifer never acted really committed to the game until the eighth grade. One day she ran in the door from school and announced, “our high school is starting a girl’s golf team and they are going to let girls from my middle school tryout. I think I’m going to give it a try.” Well this pleased me greatly, so being a novice clubmaker I proceeded to make her a new set of golf clubs with baby blue graphite shafts, blue grips and Golfsmith heads. She loved them. I also began to take her to the golf course to play a few holes with her. She was surprisingly good at it and picked it up really fast. Several of Jennifer’s friends were interested in the new team as well.

A new high school girls golf league had recently been founded in the area and so our neighborhood high school had decided to form a team. One of the teachers, a lady named Susan Taylor, had an interest in golf and volunteered to coach the team. As it turned out Jennifer not only made the team but played the number one position in matches. I tried to help out in any way I could and encouraged the girls to practice. I also drafted a simplified version of some of the more important rules. I even drew pictures to illustrate things like water hazards. These girls were truly beginners. None of them had ever played golf before going out for the team, so our team was not a threat to the other teams. Their first order of business was to learn to hit the ball and not whiff it. The other teams seemed more advanced with usually one or two girls on each squad who looked like they knew what they were doing. Playing number one, Jennifer had to play against the top players from the other teams. Some of these girls were shooting close to par in their nine hole matches. Eventually I hired a golf professional to work with Jennifer and later got the women’s coach at Furman University to help her. She was a natural. Such a nice rhythmic swing with full extension and good follow through. Her scores were getting better.

There was only one problem. The tension. Jennifer as an eighth grader was playing against girls much older in high school. She also felt pressure from me and her mother. We were just there to support the team and to help out if needed but our presence made her nervous. All the other girls on our team felt a similar pressure. A negative attitude seemed to prevail. Some of the girls didn’t want to play with certain other girls from the other schools. For some reason they disliked the coaches from the other schools as well, mainly I suspect because these coaches had been critical at times of slow play by our golfers. Some of our girls tallked about quitting the team. Besides, they hated their uniforms. There was a great deal of frustration as these young fragile, pubescent teens were getting clobbered week after week. Our team was at the bottom of the conference and did not show well at the season ending state tournament. There were no smiles on their faces just scowls.

I kept encouraging Jennifer and we played regularly during the summer. We even entered the father-son tournament at our club. Playing foursomes, the alternating shot format, we shot an 84 and won our flight. Overall we finished third to some father and son teams who had much more experience than us. Jennifer also played some local junior events and continued to develop and enjoy the game. Having to hit every other shot, Jennifer held her own. She seemed to really enjoy our outings together. I know I did and immensely so.

In the second year things had not changed a great deal with the team but there was some reason for hope. The same attitudes and frustrations permeated the team psyche but a couple of new girls had been recruited to the team and they were beginning to show some promise. Jennifer was starting to compete increasingly better against the other top players. She was gaining confidence. Several of our girls seemed improved. It looked from the outset that perhaps one other team in the conference was inferior to us so the potential for a win was encouraging. One evening Coach Susan Taylor called and said she needed to see me and wanted to come by the house. I said come on over. As she entered the house I knew we had a problem on our hands. She was carrying a tattered file folder crammed full of papers. We sat down on the back porch and she dumped the file in my lap.

“Here,” she cried, “I can’t do this anymore! You’re the new coach”.

“What?” I am sure my mouth had dropped open with a really quizzical, stupid look on my face. “I can’t coach this team, I’m not even on the faculty at the school.” I retorted.

“ I have already cleared it with the principal. No one else on the faculty wants the job. You know more about golf than I do and you can teach these girls more than I can. Besides, she added, your daughter is our best player. This is a really unusual bunch of frustrated, young girls going through life changes and I’m not dealing with it well enough.”

“I don’t’ know how to handle them any better than you and besides, I don’t have the time.” I exclaimed loudly after her as she walked briskly down the front walk to her car. “Susan come back here, I can’t do this.” She was in her car and off like a rocket. I turned and looked at my wife and she had this whimsical look on her face.

“I’ll help you,” she generously offered. We can get it done. The first thing the girls want is a new golf shirt and cap. They hate the ones Susan bought last year.”

Assuming that I had no way out of this situation I proceeded to take over the coaching duties and at the same time sounded an all points bulletin that our school was looking for a coach. I felt that I was temporary and had no long term plans as a girls high school golf coach. The first thing on the agenda was to go from sporting goods store to sporting goods stores seeking an acceptable golf shirt and cap for the girls. I thought, how many different ways can you do blue and red in a golf shirt and cap? My wife believed if the girls felt good about how they looked they might play better. Early on I encountered the importance of golf fashion. I was thinking golf swing mechanics and the girls are thinking about how they are dressed. We picked a red shirt and cap with a the school logo. The girls hated them so we went back shopping once again. We ended up with a different look and 10 unused golf uniforms in our attic at home.

The girls and I went to the driving range at our home course and worked on hitting the ball. Then we worked on putting and chipping at the practice greens. An assistant pro from my club gave them a short game clinic. We discussed golf rules and talked about our next match. “We are playing at Easley next Tuesday“, I announced.

“I’m not playing at Easley, my daughter spoke up. I don’t like it over there. Those people look down their noses at us. They think they are so much better than we are. I hate playing against them.” Easley happened to have the best team in the region and they didn’t like playing our girls either because of slow play, our ineptness, etc. The other girls seem to concur with Jennifer, they didn’t want to play Easley either. So I have a team that is prepared to forfeit the match because of feelings, the social aspect. What to do? What to do? Against my better judgment I made a phone call the next morning to the Easley coach.

“Bob, I need a favor. My girls are intimidated by your team and want to forfeit. How do you feel about sending your girls out together and then letting my team play with each other?” To make a long story shorter Bob didn’t like the idea. I really didn’t either but I was trying to keep my girls together as a team. Bob relented and offered to send his top four players out together and then pair my girls with his other team members. He went 10 deep; we only had six youngsters. Some how I was able to encourage my six to make it over to Easley the following week for the match. Parents helped and drove their kids. My wife offered to bring some terrific snacks and cold drinks. When I pulled into the parking lot of their home course I immediately noticed my girls huddled together. As I got closer I could see that some were in tears. As I approached one of the girls spotted me and shouted, “Mr. Finley, we don’t want to play. Some of their girls have already started without us.”

“Four of their teammates had to play early because of other commitments.” I fibbed. I was willing to do or say anything to keep these girls together. The situation seemed hopeless. The other parents, my wife and I cajoled and encouraged, trying to get the girls out on the course. The other coach, Bob, was obviously peeved and losing his patience. Finally, somehow, we were able to start the matches. I gave Jennifer a hug and suggested she relax and enjoy herself.

“Daddy, I don’t want the other girls to see you smoking a cigarette.” She instructed. “That really embarrasses me.” These were my final instructions before getting in my cart and going out to ”coach”. About the fourth hole or so I drove up on one of our matches. Two of our young ladies against two from Easley.

“ Mr. Finley, can you come over here.” One teammate named Wendy called out to me.

“What do you need Wendy?” I asked.

“Mr. Finley, those girls are mean!” She began to outwardly sob. Her teammate Casey was also crying.

“What happened?” I asked. “What did they say to you?”

“Nothing but they keep looking at us funny, her teammate chimed in. We think they are laughing at us.” she continued. Suddenly I was craving a cigarette.

“Look Wendy and Casey, don’t worry about the opponents. Just hit your ball and try to get it in the hole. Forget them. You are out here to play golf. One shot at a time. Please, don’t even consider what those girls are thinking. Okay?” I was pleading. These poor, young teens were so insecure and especially in this arena. Coaching a girls golf team was obviously something I was not prepared to handle. I needed a PhD in teen development. It was apparent that the sport itself was secondary. The social aspect, the feelings, the subjective environmental factors were paramount to these young ladies. Eventually, I got a phone call from a very good lady amateur in town. She said she had heard we were looking for a golf coach. “You’re hired, I responded without asking a question, when can you start?”

From that moment forward, I stayed in the background. Not only did I not want my daughter or her friends catch me smoking a cigarette, I didn’t want them to even catch me on the course. My wife and I would show up late, take a cart and watch from afar with binoculars. Jennifer eventually quit playing golf. She became interested in boys and dating plus she was apparently getting teased a lot at school about being an athlete and she wanted a more feminine personae. Several years have now past. Several of Jennifer’s opponents received full scholarships at major universities in the region. The girl’s conference is a rousing success for that reason. Also, in case you’re wondering, my wife and I quit smoking seven years ago. The other day Jennifer telephoned and asked me to meet her at the local driving range. This was the first time she had mentioned playing golf to me since she gave up the game. I have never wanted to bring the subject up. She and her new husband wanted me to hit a few balls with them so we all met at the range after work. She still has that rhythmic swing and hit that little white ball a country mile (and with those same blue-shafted clubs). Some day, when time permits, she will be very good at this game. If only she will play. I’m convinced she will.

Tom Finley

October 9, 2004

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