The putting green at Arrowhead Country club has a grid made of ribbon set up in the middle of it, and inside of the grid are pieces of yellow construction paper. Purple cones circle around the perimeter of the green.
Some serious fun is at hand, as the golfers taking part are about to learn.
Four members of the Rapid City Flame, the youth organization for Special Olympics in Rapid City, line up between two of the cones while Arrowhead head golf professional Jesse Hansen explains the goal of the game they’re going to play today: Putt the ball into the grid to score points.
The game seems easy enough, but it’s not. The slope of the green teaches players to take into account the speed of an uphill or downhill putt. Players also learn about allowing for the break of a ball on side-hill putts.
Hansen gives pointers as they work their way around the green. He also hands out high-fives and shares smiles and laughs with his students.
“We treat this program like any other program,” Hansen said. “We’ll incorporate some games, just to make golf fun. If it’s boring and monotonous, people will lose interest.”
Rapid City Flame board member Monica Burgess explained the golf program Hansen holds at Arrowhead in August is one of several that pair unified volunteer partners from around Rapid City with Flame athletes to help train and teach sports skills.
“Almost all of our athletes, even if they participate in typical sports, reach a point where it becomes difficult,” Burgess said. “Having athletes out on the field who can give guidance to our athletes and help in the training and teaching is a fantastic model and a fantastic program here in Rapid City.”
The Rapid City Flame got its start in 1968, but it’s really seen its participant numbers grow in the last 15 years. Burgess said in 2004 there were 17 Flame athletes. Today, there are over 150 athletes and 50 to 60 unified partners that come out and both coach and participate regularly.
“Special Olympics is here and we provide services for any ability, any age, and provide growth and coaching at whatever skill level the athlete is at,” Burgess said.
Hansen, who came to Rapid City from Denver in 2016 to become the head golf pro at Arrowhead, was approached by a couple club members who volunteered with the Rapid City Flame.
“They called and said, ‘Hey, August, that’s golf time for the Special Olympics. Do you guys want to do a four-week clinic?” Hansen said. “I said, sure, why not?”
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The clinic ran weekly for four weeks in August. Hansen said numbers varied from week to week, but they typically had six to 14 golfers take part. Each session focused on teaching skills, but Hansen and assistant golf pro Ryan Treptow liked to take participants out on the course so they can experience golf how it’s truly played.
Golf is just one of the sports that pairs teacher like Hansen and Treptow with students wanting to learn more about the game. Bowling, softball, basketball and track are among the sports that pair Flame athletes with coaches.
“All the partnerships we have with the community are incredibly important to us. They keep the program rolling,” Burgess said. “We have the top coaches in Rapid City coaching athletes on our teams. The progress that the teams and the athletes have made in their skill sets is really unbelievable. It kind of throws you back.”
Hansen’s golfers have made their way around the putting green and now it’s time to move to the driving range to work on swinging a golf club. First, he shows the group how to hold the club, how to take it back and how to hit a ball. Then, he works one by one with each player to help them get a feel for the backswing to hitting the ball and why it’s important to follow through.
“You’re talking about swing path and where club face is at impact,” Hansen said, a smile lighting up his face. “It’s awesome for me because they understand it, and you can see the benefits they get from understanding how the club works around your body.”
It’s that individual attention, Burgess said, that helps these athletes get better.
“The coaches that come to coach golf or bowling have expectations that match the abilities of each single athlete. How they teach, it's very unique to each athlete,” she said.
Burgess said the lessons the Flame athletes take away often go beyond learning a game.
“We have athletes that maybe are working on their patience level or are working on their social interactions,” she said. “Opportunities like this are where there aren't judgments made, people are just athletes. So they’re able to come in and be themselves and gain skills. And these athletes all do gain skills.”
Volunteers like Hansen and other unified partners, Burgess said, are what lead to programs like the one at Arrowhead.
“We are so grateful to the Rapid City community, both the volunteer community and the donor community,” she said. “Because without them, these opportunities wouldn't exist.”
To learn more about the Rapid City Flame, ways to volunteer or how to support its programs, visit http://rcflame.org/ or reach out by phone at 605-484-8425.