NEW YORK >> Two years ago, Juan Cortorreal had never held a golf club. And now here he was, a freshman from the Eagle Academy for Young Men of Harlem, competing against the top player from the Bronx High School of Science, one of the city’s best teams.
As his team’s No. 1 man, Juan had to tee off in the first group, in front of a crowd, at the Mosholu Golf Course in the Bronx, toward the end of the school year in May. Everyone fell hushed as he settled into his stance. With a patient backswing and whiplike follow-through, he sent his ball flying up the tree-lined fairway. He outdrove his opponent, a far more seasoned player, but proceeded to lose the hole and, eventually, the match, just as he had every other match all season. Afterward, though, he was practically ebullient.
“It was probably the most competitive match I’ve had,” Juan, 15, said. “It was fun; it was really fun.”
Juan and his identical twin, Antonio, are two of 20 Eagle Academy students who are avidly learning the game — and studying science, math and character lessons — with the Bridge Golf Foundation of Harlem. The group’s mission is to improve the lives and opportunities of young minority men through golf.
The golf program is the latest in a growing number of organizations in New York and across the country devoted to introducing minority youths to sports traditionally played mostly by whites and to providing mentoring and tutoring programs. Harlem alone has StreetSquash; Ice Hockey in Harlem; Harlem Lacrosse; and Dream, formerly Harlem RBI, which focuses on baseball and softball.
At a time when Harlem is undergoing rapid change — to the disappointment and outright disgust of some longtime residents — Farrell Evans, the primary architect of the golf foundation, said the program represents a model for progressive gentrification.
“People get too caught up on the idea of displacement,” said Evans, who has lived in Harlem for 17 years. “We’re an example of how you can make it work for everybody.”
The foundation, on West 117th Street between Fifth and Lenox avenues, is part of a neighborhood that bears little resemblance to how it looked just a few years ago. A Whole Foods opened at 125th Street and Lenox Avenue in late July, a capstone to a boulevard of restored brownstones where bistros and upscale coffee shops now outnumber the remaining dollar stores and bodegas.
It’s not hard to find Harlem residents who lament the influx of wealth and newcomers in a neighborhood that once held the heart of black culture in America.
A community effort — backed by Adriano Espaillat, the Democrat who represents the 13th Congressional District — is afoot to thwart the real estate industry’s effort to rebrand the area between West 110th and West 125th streets as SoHa (short for South Harlem).
Espaillat, who was unfamiliar with the Bridge Golf Foundation, said in an interview that any after-school program that provides academic enrichment, especially in science and technology, could be of great help to students anywhere. But he also said the foundation’s mission struck him as being “somewhat paternalistic” in what he considered to be an effort to “take students out of the basketball court and teach them a game where they can brush elbows with the very rich and elite of this city.”
“SoHa, Whole Foods, displacement,” he said. “Is success coming at the expense of people that are living there?”
The Bridge Golf Learning Center, also the headquarters for the foundation, opened in May 2016. The center occupies a street-level space in the rear of a luxury condominium called the Adeline that was built in 2014.
The facility has three hitting bays. Cups for putting are sunk into the carpeted floor. When the foundation isn’t in session with the students, the center is open to the public — generally a high-paying clientele — for lessons with golf pros, club fittings, fitness screenings and open play on state-of-the-art simulators that spew data such as club speed and carry distance.
Juan and Antonio know all of their numbers.
“Today I hit 275,” Juan said on a recent afternoon at the learning center, referring to how many yards he hit the ball off a tee with his driver. It was his longest drive yet. Antonio’s was 266. Either would be the envy of most recreational golfers.
The students at the center are seventh- through 10th-graders. All of them have enrolled by choice, but as a requirement of enrollment they must go to the learning center at least four days a week after school.
The organization also offers a seven-week summer program. Many of the students spent July and the first half of August preparing for state Regents exams. The twins focused on geometry, Juan in hopes of improving upon a 72, Antonio with the goal of passing. Each passed the earth science exam with ease.
Sitting in their fourth-floor walk-up, above a West African grocery and a shuttered pizzeria, the twins’ father, Hector Cortorreal, said the golf center, along with Eagle Academy, the public school his sons attend, has provided much-needed focus in their lives. “I always see them doing their homework,” he said, gesturing toward the dining table in the narrow apartment.
The Cortorreal family emigrated from the Dominican Republic when Juan and Antonio, the youngest of five siblings, were 7. Their father is a porter in a building around the block. Their mother, Marisol, works as a home health attendant. The parents are no longer together, and the boys are living with their father.
As talented yet underprivileged young men, the Cortorreals are just the kind of the students the Bridge Golf Foundation was made for, Evans said.
Evans, a former journalist who grew up playing golf in a black middle-class family, started the foundation with Robert M. Rubin, a retired commodities trader who came from a white working-class background and is now the principal owner of the Bridge, a lavish country club in Bridgehampton. The two men met in fall 2014 while playing golf with a mutual friend in Westchester County.
The two men established the nonprofit foundation in January 2015.
The annual budget is roughly $1 million, Evans said. Most of the funding comes from donations, with the major benefactor being Rubin. His motivation in underwriting the organization, he said, comes from what he considers a growing inequality of opportunity in America.
“I think there is a self-reinforcing, protectionist mechanism among the elites, and I’m thinking about ways to crack that,” Rubin explained. “The system that gave me my opportunity is broken now. So this is a way to create little openings in the armor that the elite have built around themselves.”
While President Donald Trump, with his gilded private clubs, has become for many the face of golf in America, the foundation reflects a far different mission within the game.
Along the walls of the learning center are sculptures made from old leather golf bags by conceptual artist Charles McGill, who was black (he died in July after a brief illness). The golf bag, he wrote in an exposition on prominent display, is “a very political object due to its historical associations with class inequality and racial injustice.”
The Bridge students have examined issues of race through STEM as well as golf. Antonio was part of a team of students who researched the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan. They presented their findings at a water-themed fair at the foundation in June.
The scandal’s disproportionate effect on Flint’s poor black population made an impression on Antonio. “It just seemed unfair to me that they had to drink that water,” he said.
The majority of the foundation’s STEM lessons are designed around the physics and statistics of golf. The students explore physics principles like the magnus effect, a lift force that determines the flight of a spinning ball. They also design their own experiments to determine, say, mean, mode and median and the correlation between two factors, like a golf club’s loft and the rotation of a ball.
“You learn statistics in school and you think that it’s boring and why the hell are they making me do this?” said Veeshan Narinesingh, a co-leader of the Bridge’s STEM program. “But they see it in an actual application to something they care about and it sticks in their head more.”
The foundation began working with Eagle Academy students in September 2015. The learning center was still under construction, so the classes met at the Harlem YMCA. The boys swung plastic clubs until the center opened eight months later.
“As soon as we put a real club in their hands, they wanted to swing it,” said Brian Hwang, one of the foundation’s two full-time teaching pros. “And then they started to hit their first shots into the screens. That was it — they loved it.”
As the only boys’high school golf team in Harlem, one composed entirely of freshmen, Eagle Academy lost every match last spring. Still, the boys said they gained valuable experience. The season produced highs as well as lows.
“Look at this shot!” Randy Taylor, the foundation’s other full-time pro, said during the Bronx Science match last spring as a drive of Antonio’s flew toward the green at Mosholu’s third hole, stopping 10 feet from the cup.
Taylor, 35, grew up in a family of modest means in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and took up the game at the insistence of his mother, who enrolled him in an after-school program that combined golf and academics. When he was 14, Taylor met Tiger Woods, then a rising star, who awarded him a scholarship to a Nike golf camp.
“I tell the boys all the time,” said Taylor, “that changed a lot for me and put me in a situation where I could learn this game of golf, be good at it and teach it for a living, and pass it on to them.”
A few times a year, the foundation hosts the students at the Bridge, Rubin’s club.
Their most recent visit, in late July, combined hands-on lessons on how a golf course is maintained with sumptuous food, an instructional clinic and time spent playing on the course.
After a work session in the morning and a lunch of quesadillas, cheeseburgers and push-up pops on the club’s patio, the boys limbered up for golf lessons. Then they hiked to the first tee.
Zion Smith, 14, hit his opening drive and then took a moment to admire the verdant tableau, with its views of Peconic Bay in the distance. “It’s different than every other course I’ve played,” he said. “Everything is just so clean.”
Far more than just offering the occasional day in the country or an introduction to golf, Zion said, the foundation has become a second family to him after his father died of cancer.
“It’s very helpful to have people around to support me, that want me to be successful just like my father was,” he said. “They’re kind of stepping in as a parent figure in my father’s shoes, treating me special. Like I’m someone and not invisible, not being ignored.”