OCEANSIDE — Ten-year-old Miguel Martinez was a big fan of playing golf as a video game.
He demonstrated his technique last week, with a sweep of his arm, holding an imaginary plastic game wand.

But ask him what it’s like to step outdoors to play for real on a hilly course with sand traps and putting greens, using a real golf club, and he can hardly get the words out fast enough.

“Real life is way better,” said Miguel, one of about 250 kids enrolled in Pro Kids Oceanside golf academy.

The nonprofit — its full name is Pro Kids, The First Tee of San Diego — started in San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood in 1994, using the game of golf as a life lesson and an incentive to help kids to do better in school. It offers after-school tutoring, community service activities and educational workshops on everything from designing a city to making ice cream.

In September, Pro Kids opened a $2.2 million learning center at 821 Douglas Drive next to the Oceanside Municipal Golf Course, but it took until March for the center’s six-hole, par-three golf course to be ready for play.
“Mostly, it was waiting for the grass to be fully grown,” said Penny Ranftle, Pro Kids Oceanside program manager.

So far, the kids are delighted, with giggles and squeals of laughter echoing throughout the airy clubhouse.

But there’s serious business going on too.

Before they get to take golf lessons or play the game, the kids have to do their homework, with help from center tutors if they need it, and then read for 20 minutes.
“First I have to do the boring stuff, then I get to do the exciting stuff,” grumbled 9-year-old Jose Munoz.

Vanessa Harper, 10, said the golf is great, but she’s also a big fan of the help she’s getting with homework from Ranftle, education Director Kirsten Jones or one of the four interns from Carlsbad’s Golf Academy of America who work at the Pro Kids center.

“I have trouble because a lot of my teachers give us real hard homework,” Vanessa said. Math is her nemesis.

Kids enrolled at Pro Kids earn points for getting a good report card at school, attending tutoring classes and workshops, going on educational field trips, providing community service and representing Pro Kids at special events.

They can spend the points on golf equipment and apparel, to use the golf simulator and to play on the outdoor golf course. For example, a round of golf costs two points, using the golf simulator costs 5 points and using a computer costs one point.

The program is open to students from throughout North County between the ages 7 to 17. Most come from Oceanside and Vista, although some have come from as far away as Poway and Fallbrook, Ranftle said.

Tiffany Green, 13, said she was eager to come to Pro Kids when she learned about it.
“I heard golf is a relaxing game,” Tiffany said while awaiting her turn on a putting green. “I’ve seen my dad play and I thought that would be fun sometime.”

Pro Kids has formed a partnership with the Oceanside Unified School District, working with Chavez Middle School and five Oceanside elementary schools — Reynolds, Del Rio, Foussat, Nichols and Libby Lake — to offer golf lessons at the schools during physical education classes in addition to the programs it has at the Douglas Drive center.

For now, there’s no charge to participate in Pro Kids activities at the center for those who qualify for free or reduced price lunch in school, those from military families and students who attend any of the partner schools.

All others must pay a fee of $100 annually, reduced to $75 per child for families with more than one student in the program.

Anyone who shows up is welcome, Ranftle said.

“They just have to walk through the door and fill out a membership form,” Ranftle said. “This is a completely drop-in facility. We don’t have to know when someone’s coming but they have to be a member.”

The Oceanside center covers 5.5 acres and includes a 4,400 square-foot club house, classrooms, putting and chipping greens, a tile patio for outdoor classes, an indoor computerized golf simulator.

Ultimately, the Oceanside center is designed to serve up to 500 kids a year. The original Pro Kids center in City Heights serves about 1,600 students a year.

“Some kids come once a week, some kids come every day but we see the same kids over and over. It’s like a family,” Ranftle said.

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