Formula for fun

There must be easier swing thoughts than the ones bouncing around in 14-year-old Josh Williams’s head as he prepares to address his ball on this sweltering morning in east Mississippi. While most of us are pleased simply to have followed through and kept our heads down, Josh is able to measure his ball-striking against a yardstick of abstruse concepts, things like projectile motion and center of percussion. Gee whiz, isn’t this game hard enough already?

Stunningly, Josh rips his drive about 200 yards down the third fairway of the Mississippi State University golf course, drawing it in a sweet arc up and over the crest of a hill. After a moment of awed silence in which it is clear that all those lofty scientific notions have given way to the simple pleasure of watching a white ball streak across a blue sky, the other five golfers in Josh’s group erupt in appreciative “oohs” and “aahs.” The shot is so pretty that even Josh, whose determination to succeed at golf sometimes expresses itself as boyish fierceness, permits himself a wide and well-deserved grin.

Josh is a veteran of an intriguing USGA-funded program called Science on the Green, which uses golf to teach junior high school students about science, math, technology and engineering. And why not? As Dr. Sandra Harpole, the program’s founder, puts it, “Tiger Woods is a physics lesson in action.”

The participants have not been chosen because they are necessarily the most talented science students in their schools. Rather, they have been picked because of their enthusiasm and the degree to which they help the program meet its broad goal of promoting golf and science in a place and among a population in which both disciplines have traditionally been neglected.

“We look for students who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to golf and who are also underrepresented in math, science, technology and engineering,” says Harpole, a physicist at Mississippi State who serves as Science on the Green’s tireless champion. “So we have lots of girls and minorities.”

Indeed, the kids – 29 of them in this, the program’s third year – are a mix of boys and girls, black and white, ages 12 to 15. They come from the three counties that surround Starkville: Clay, Lowndes and Oktibbeha. Most are on the honor roll, and many have ambitious plans for the future. On her application, Macy Hartel, age 12, lists pediatric cardiologist as her career goal. Deionesha Lenoir’s is “to finish high school with honors” and “go to a university and major in medicine.” Walter Tillman, a skinny 12-year-old, hopes “to own my own ‘cooperation,’ “ and his gift for malapropisms notwithstanding, he just might do it. For now, golf couture may be the kids’ toughest challenge, judging by the prevalence of doo-rags, basketball jerseys and pocket books, which some of the girls struggle vainly to keep on their shoulders while hitting balls on the range.

Everybody gets along well, which is perhaps not so surprising in the mornings, when five witty, young instructors  from MSU’s professional golf management program patiently teach basic golf skills like chipping and putting.

The impressive thing is how focused the kids stay throughout the afternoon science sessions, which run from 12:30 to 5:00 and include topics students this age typically wouldn’t encounter for two or three years. “My feeling all along has been that children are not challenged academically as much as they should be,” Harpole says firmly.

Science on the Green is her proof. For every moment in which ordinary yardsticks suddenly metamorphose into dueling sabers, there are long stretches of deep, earnest concentration by the participants. Just how often are science demonstrations and math proofs greeted by kids’ spontaneous applause? And the program begins only a week or two after the long school year has come to a close. There are a lot of things these youngsters could be doing instead of sweating trig.

“My friends think I should be at home watching TV and sleeping,” confesses Brandon Lanier, a baby-faced 12-year-old whose only previous brush with golf has been watching it on television. But Brandon is spending his afternoons at Starkville High, using trigonometry to measure the height of the gym’s outside wall; using graph paper to plot the relative movement of one object traveling at constant speed and one that is accelerating (the moving object is Macy on a skateboard, towed by Josh); and calculating precisely how far a small cannon must shoot a plastic ball in order to reach a flower pot when the ball’s speed and trajectory are known.

This last exercise is the kids’ perennial favorite. It is conducted as a competition, with six teams vying for the title of projectile champs. Balls fly all over, turning the room into something resembling an overworked driving range, with whoops of delight noting each hit. No U.S. Open leader board was ever monitored more closely than this blackboard scoreboard.

Credit for the kids’ boisterous enthusiasm goes to Dr. Paul Cuicchi, a physics teacher at Starkville High who just happens to be this year’s Mississippi teacher of the year. Though he’s not a player himself, Cuicchi (pronounced quickie) has no trouble relating to the aspiring golfers. He has a good sense of humor, endless patience and two very able assistants in Paul Hutchison, a doctoral candidate in physics at the University of Maryland, and Martha Pratt, who teaches math at Mississippi State. If there’s a lull, Cuicchi disappears into his science closet like Merlin into his cave and – Presto! – emerges with one of the many curious gadgets he uses to demonstrate science concepts such as the conductivity of electricity or angular momentum in a fun-amazing-feats kind of break from the more serious science.

The program’s curriculum has not changed much since it was first laid out three years ago. “The only change we have made is to get the kids out playing golf sooner,” says Harpole.

This year the group took a field trip to Old Waverly Golf Club, site of the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open and Harpole’s home course, for a lesson in environmental science, and visited the MSU supersonic wind tunnel to learn why a golf ball with dimples flies farther and straighter than one without. (Dimples create controlled turbulence that reduce the amount of drag.) The first year, the kids visited a golf equipment manufacturing facility in Pontotoc, Miss., to learn how balls are made and to see how the coefficient of restitution (the rate at which a ball rebounds off a clubface) is measured. Unfortunately, the plant is no longer in operation – which underscores Harpole’s fondest wish for these kids.

“When I was growing up [in nearby Maben],” recalls Harpole, “I didn’t know anyone who was a physicist or an engineer. My high school didn’t even offer physics. My goal is for the kids to see that golf can lead to a profession. They can be scientists, engineers. They can go into turf management. It’s critical to the economy of this state that we give kids opportunities in science and technology. It’s important to any rural state.”

While other USGA-funded programs include mentoring, academics and life skills, Science on the Green stands out for the amount of classroom work it involves. “It’s unique in that it intensely integrates science and golf on a college campus,” notes David Shapiro, manager of fellowship and grants at the USGA Foundation.

The program’s genesis was a remark by one of Harpole’s colleagues, an educational psychologist who, like her, was an avid golfer. Wouldn’t it be possible, he mused, to teach science through golf and vice versa? Harpole did nothing with the idea just then, except tuck it somewhere in the back of her mind.

When the Women’s Open was held at Old Waverly, it was a moment of triumph, of course, but also of trepidation for Harpole, who served as chair of the player registration committee.

“There are a lot of people in Mississippi who haven’t been exposed to the game,” she says. “For many who attended the Open, it was their first chance to see a tournament.”

Harpole was thrilled to see how much enthusiasm the Open generated; attendance exceeded 100,000. The challenge was building on that momentum.

That earlier conversation about golf and science popped into Harpole’s mind. With the encouragement of officials she met during the Women’s Open, Harpole crafted a proposal stressing Mississippi State’s willingness to make its golf course available along with the talented staff in its professional golf management program. Science on the Green received a three-year commitment from the USGA Foundation of $146,856. The grant expires after this year – USGA Foundation support is generally meant as seed money – so Harpole is contemplating either applying for a grant somewhere else or opening the program to children who can pay. But since this is only the program’s third year, says Harpole, “there’s no real way of gauging our success, except anecdotally.”

Josh is one such “anecdote.” He lives 30 miles north of Starkville, in a place called Prairie, which is about as far out in the country as its name suggests. To catch the van to MSU each day, he has to get up at 5 a.m. Not that it was a problem the program’s first year: Josh was so excited he literally didn’t sleep for two nights before it began.

Seeing her son’s enthusiasm for this game, which no one in her family had ever played, Leola Williams persuaded a friend to come over with a tractor and clear a pasture on the family’s farm, which Josh now uses as a driving range. It’s about 200 yards deep and requires a drive over a fence, but to Josh, it’s a little plot of heaven. “Professional golf player” is now his career goal.

The golf star of the program is clearly Markesha Houston, a muscular 13-year-old who will be an eighth-grader at Starkville’s Armstrong Middle School. Markesha is so talented that Harpole teases her by saying she hopes one day she will let the professor come watch her play in a real tournament. That does not seem all that farfetched when you see Markesha in action. Not only can she hit 7-iron after 7-iron 150 yards with the same perfect draw, but she has discipline and determination. Before every shot, Markesha painstakingly reviews her set up and checks her grip and stance. Then she takes as full and powerful a swing as you’ll see at any golf academy. Knowing talent when he sees it, MSU director of golf Blane Merritt plans to work with her.

Once they’ve completed the two-week program, Science on the Green kids are eligible for a fantastic deal: They can play as much as they like on the MSU course. Markesha reckons she played three times a week last summer and she hopes to play even more often this year.

On her 2002 application, Markesha wrote that her career goal is to “attend UCLA and major in archeology.” No one  involved with Science on the Green will be surprised if she does that on a golf scholarship. That would make Markesha the program’s most visible success, but hardly its only one.

Contributor  Author Merrell Noden majored in english at college and is only slightly better at golf than he is at science.