GREENVILLE — On this windy Wednesday afternoon at the Greenville Municipal Golf Course, Claude Courtney approaches one of his team’s 11 golfers.
“You know the hole isn’t that way, right,” the longtime Greenville-Weston golf coached joked, pointing in the opposite direction of where the ball landed.
In a way, that golf ball’s landing was a good thing. It’s a sign that the school still has a golf program.
Last summer, golf, along with five other sports, were suspended by the Greenville School District due to an $163,000 cut to the athletic budget. The sports, however, were saved after community volunteers raised $71,000.
Courtney, a retired teacher who started coaching the program over two decades ago at T.L. Weston, said his team took it hard when they first heard the news. He, however, stayed positive.
“It doesn’t take that much to keep golf going,” said Courtney. “I told them we’re going to play. I’ll just volunteer my time.” Courtney had to do exactly that until coaching supplements were recently approved.
But, with Greenville-Weston over one hurdle, another one stands in their way. This year, GWHS has just three matches — all at home, and all against St. Joseph. It would’ve been four against the same opponent, but their season-opening match on March 23 was cancelled due to rain.
“This is going to be a short season,” Courtney said.
Other programs in the area, including Indianola Gentry and Cleveland East Side, have dissolved — while smaller public schools don’t field golf teams. In recent years, Courtney said, the school has been unable to schedule a match with Cleveland High.
Their annual GWHS Invitational once included four or five teams. It, however, slowly declined, said Courtney. This year, most likely, it’ll just be two teams.
“Unless somebody else calls, it’ll be us and St. Joe,” he said.
Greenville-Weston’s golf team didn’t travel last year, and due to shaky finances, will play all their matches at the Greenville Municipal Golf Course again this season.
But it has been the Greenville community’s courtesy that has made sure the school still has a golf program. Recently, the team received new golf shirts from a local store, Sport Speciality, free of charge.
“We ordered the shirts two years ago, but didn’t have the money to get them,” said Courtney. “They called me and told me to come and pick them up.”
While Sport Speciality made sure the team had matching shirts, the community has donated golf clubs. The school last purchased clubs about four or five years ago, Courtney estimated, and his team still uses them today.
Diamond in the rough
Most of Greenville-Weston’s golfers, Courtney said, have never stepped foot on a golf course. But what they lack in talent, they make up with desire, he added.
“Once you put a club in their hands, show them how to grip it, and let them swing the club, they want to go further,” said Courtney. “They’re going to want to improve.”
While most of Greenville-Weston’s golfers participate to learn more about the sport, Jeron Collins is on a path that could one day lead him to a professional golfing career. The 15-year-old Solomon Middle School eighth grader has stood above the pack since he joined the team a couple years ago.
The news of the sport’s suspension last summer devastated the youngster, said his father, Curt Collins. But when the sports were re-instated it was a joyous occasion, he added.
“He was very excited,” said Collins. “He said, ‘Daddy, I have a chance to do what I wanna do now.’ “
The father and son picked up the sport four years ago after the elder Collins retired. Since then, Collins said he has taken his son to tournaments in Florida, Texas and Louisiana, among other places. The two even got a chance to play at the facility of Tiger Woods’ former coach, Hank Haney.
But it was a trip to a tournament in Jackson that opened Jeron’s eyes to what his future could hold, his father remembered.
“The first place check was for $658,000. That’s when he knew it was serious,” Curt Collins recollected.
Over the hump
Courtney remembers a time — in the 90s, he estimates — when the school once hosted district tournaments.
“We had teams out here from all over,” he remembered.
But with the decline of the sport in Delta public schools, scheduling has become difficult — and players remain scarce.
Like Greenville-Weston, St. Joseph will play just three matches this season — all against GWHS. St. Joseph is a private school, but competes against public institutions in the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA).
“We used to play against Winona and in a Catholic school tournament in Vicksburg,” St. Joe golf coach Brian McGaugh recollected. “We don’t do that anymore.” There was a time when the Class 1A school played as many as 10 matches in a season, he said.
And finding athletes to play golf over other spring sports is difficult, added McGaugh, especially at a school of just 208 students.
“Everybody’s playing baseball,” said McGaugh, who also said that the economy and loss of area residents has also played a part.
According to the most recent numbers, Washington County lost 18.8 percent of its population in the last decade, from 62,977 residents in 2000 to 51,137 people in 2010.
Compared to teams in larger cities like Jackson, Delta golf squads are at a disadvantage, said Courtney.
“The golf course here is outside the city,” he said. “The courses in Jackson are in their backyard. All they have to do is jump the fence.”
Money is also an issue here in Washington County, where 48 percent of those under 18 live below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau.
“And if dad can’t afford to play,” said McGaugh, “the kid won’t be playing either.”
But golf is a sport, said Collins, for those who usually don’t play baseball, basketball or football. For other sports, he said, you need more players. For golf, the only requirements are only golf clubs, a location — and, of course, cash.
“It’s the only sport where you can play like they do it on TV,” said Collins.