Butch Harmon stood on stage in April telling a tale with the impeccable timing of a comedian. The audience was captivated, laughing one minute and cringing the next. It was easy to relate to the world’s foremost golf instructor as he lingered on a subject that inevitably sparks a response:
An extremely persistent father who only wanted the best for his prodigy son flew into Las Vegas, happy to spend $1,000 an hour at Harmon’s golf school. It took only a couple of minutes to diagnose the biggest issue.
“Every time I would ask the young man a question, the father would answer,” said Harmon, a New Rochelle native and son of former Masters champion and Winged Foot head professional Claude Harmon.
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“He kept telling me his son was really good. Really good. … The poor kid is embarrassed. … I felt bad, so I put my arm around the guy, walked him over to where the kid couldn’t hear and said, ‘Now you need to do me a favor, you need to go down to the clubhouse and have lunch. Sign my name. I’ll buy.’ ”
The father refused.
“You’re screwing him up,” Harmon said. “I’ve seen really good. This isn’t it. That doesn’t mean he won’t be, but you’re not helping him. You’re over here blowing smoke up his rear end. You’re in the way. Go in my office, use the phone if you need to make some business calls.”
The father insisted he needed to stay within earshot.
“OK, now I’m going to put it to you in language you can understand: ‘Get the hell out of here,’ ” Harmon recalled. “He looked at me like, ‘What?’ I told him, ‘Just go inside my office and give me 20 minutes with your son.’ Now here’s the sad part. His son was like, ‘Oh, thank you, Mr. Harmon. I love my dad, but he just wears me out.’ I told him, ‘I know. Let’s go to work.’ ”
Are parents the problem?
Helicopter parents are constantly buzzing golf courses, athletic fields, tennis courts and gymnasiums. Are they fueling the explosion of travel or club organizations, the proliferation of personal trainers and private instructors?
“It could be a father who played a certain sport who feels like he has a great background in a certain sport,” North Rockland Athletic Director Joe Casarella said. “Or it could be a mom who sees that the neighbor’s two kids are doing well and getting scholarships, but they were 6-foot-3 and their child’s 5-2. They don’t look at that. It’s their own kid, the most important person in the world. And it’s hard for them to compare.”
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Some experts believe parents are just following a beaten path.
“I’m not blaming the parents for any of this,” said Tom Farrey, head of the Sport and Society program at the Aspen Institute. “I feel like parents are just responding to the system they are presented with.
“They’re lacking the research,” Farrey added. “They’re lost. They’re doing what the mother or father standing next to them at the cocktail party is doing based on the bad information they received. It’s a landscape of ignorance right now and there is a need to provide parents information so they can make the very best decisions for their kids.”
The Cox father-daughter team
When his daughter showed more than a passing interest on the golf course, Keith Cox signed her up for professional instruction. He stood nearby soaking up the information and repeated the drills with Kyra at the driving range.
“I started watching Golf Channel and reading golf magazines and I really got into it because I’m a golf enthusiast and I started giving her a couple of lessons,” Keith Cox said. “At one point she said, ‘Dad, I don’t want to take any more lessons. Why don’t you just do it? You know my swing.’ That was about four years ago and we pretty much stuck with it and the results were great. Periodically, we’d have our fights and so forth. It’s hard dealing with a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old girl, but at the end of the day we see the results. I know her swing and can change certain things in a minute.”
The partnership has not diminished Kyra’s love of the game.
“I have an advantage,” said the junior at John Jay High School, who is being chased by a list of top Division I schools. “I can always talk with my coach. I don’t have to travel anywhere to see my coach. Sometimes he can fix me up in a minute. We do clash … but at the end of the day we figure it out.”
Keith Cox is convinced the long hours, custom golf club fittings and extensive summer travel is the only way to go. A great high school experience is not enough for a player who is competing with deep-pocketed golf parents for a college scholarship.
“Absolutely not,” he said. “Kyra has played in USGA events, AJGA events. We get her into everything so she gets a look at everyone that’s out there and learns to compete at every level.”
The full-court press
Clifford Schultz was skeptical when he agreed to fund training for the budding lacrosse goalie on the other side of the dinner table. The endgame was not clear. Josh Schultz played at Irvington High School in the spring and High Impact in the summer. He also signed up for a strength and conditioning program, which helped a player with passion develop into a player good enough to earn a spot at Western New England College.
“It was a big commitment,” Clifford Schultz said. “They wanted him there three or four times a week. Josh wanted to work this summer. I thought there was a lot on his plate, but he’s accomplished it. … I really think his level of maturity has improved as a kid, as a player and as a young adult. I think it’s really helped him get ready for college. He’s lost a lot of weight. He’s gotten himself physically and mentally ready to go to college. As his dad, I’m really proud of him.”
Some parents do begin to act like they are entitled upon signing checks.
“The poor behavior has increased tremendously,” said Al Morales, the athletic director at Brewster Sports Center who’s coached varsity boys and girls basketball at Kennedy Catholic and is the Lightning/AAU commissioner for New York. “It can lead to total chaos among the adults. Most refs are looking to do the game, pick up a check and go home. Not everything gets called. The next thing you know, one mom is arguing. Pretty soon, another mom is arguing. And then they start yelling at each other.”
There are social pressures at work when parents decide what they can afford. In many situations, they are willing to mortgage the future in order to keep up with the Joneses.
“It can be seen as a sign of being a good parent if your kid does well in sports,” said Karl Erickson, a faculty member at the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University. “You don’t want to be seen as the parent who didn’t give your kid all the best things in the world.”
ABOUT THE PROJECT: Journal News/lohud sports writers Josh Thomson and Mike Dougherty, along with photojournalist John Meore, fanned out this past spring and summer to investigate the growing world of youth sports in the Lower Hudson Valley for this series, Pay to Play.