Christopher Columbus High, a public school in the Bronx, has the
air of a besieged bunker. Security guards man every entrance and
exit, like sentries on perimeter defense. Cops troop back and
forth in the halls, ready to swat the cap off any student
impertinent enough to wear one. To get inside the lines, be
prepared to give your name, rank and serial number.
On a dare last month, 15-year-old sophomore Johnathan Rodriguez
tried to slip through the metal detector in the lobby with his
golf bag. The clubs triggered an alarm louder than any Bronx
cheer. "If 14 metal poles hadn't set that thing off, it would've
been funny," Johnathan says.
Johnathan and his buddies on the Columbus golf team have been
setting off bells and whistles for two years. Last season--the
team's first since the sport was axed in 1987--Columbus was 5-1 in
intraborough match play and shared the Bronx schoolboy title.
This year the scruffy squad of mostly first- and
second-generation immigrants had that honor all to itself,
running its string of regular-season victories over Bronx
opponents to 11. "At the start of 2000, half our guys didn't know
which end of the club to hit the ball with," says Harvey
Zarensky, the school's athletic director, "and none had ever set
foot on a golf course."
Bosnian refugee Malik Tekesinovic barely knew what golf was.
"Where I come from, golf courses don't look like golf courses
anymore," says Malik, who grew up on the mean streets of
Sarajevo. "The fairways are full of craters from mortar shells,
so everybody just plays soccer."
On the mean streets of the Bronx, the sports are baseball,
basketball and football. "That's the extent of it," says Columbus
coach Norm Harris. "It's hard to get kids even to think about
Still, eight public high schools in the Bronx offer golf, which
has an even longer tradition in the borough than the Yankees.
Babe Ruth used to spend off days from the House that He Built
playing Van Cortlandt Golf Course, the oldest muni in the
country. Gene Sarazen learned the game there, and that's where
young Chi Chi Rodriguez fine-tuned his.
For decades at Columbus, Al Oglio, a health teacher and a dean at
the school, coached the sport, which had played a dark role in
his family history but which he loved all the same. "Golf killed
his twin brother," says gym teacher Bob Gregory. "A ball hit him
in the head." Al Oglio died 13 years ago, taking Columbus golf
It wasn't revived until 1999, when Harris walked into the
principal's office and offered his services. A retired TWA vice
president with a 20 handicap, Harris lives six blocks from the
school. Though he had never taught golf, he had plenty of
expertise with teenagers. "I've raised seven," he says. "Being
able to anticipate and understand teens is a big plus."
Harris is measured, contemplative and autocratically benign. He
rarely raises his voice, whether he's dispensing advice,
reprimanding his players or razzing them into fits of helpless
laughter. "You've got to be extremely fair and equal to all,"
says Harris, "no matter how well or badly they play." He calls
his team the Bad News Bears.
Besides the obvious derivation, the Bears got their name from
Barry (Bear) Raju, the only senior on last year's team. Raju
became a semimythic figure last spring for something he did while
mulling the foot-long putt that would propel Columbus into the
Public Schools Athletic League playoffs against the top teams
from the city's other four boroughs. As he drew back his putter,
Raju spied a quarter on the ground. Dropping the club, he
crouched and pocketed the coin, not realizing that the quarter
was another player's marker.
This year's starting five consists of Little Bear (Malik), Care
Bear (Vinh Bui), Gummi Bear (Raymond Heard), Tune Bear (Jason
Thoman) and Bedtime Bear (Johnathan). "We call him Bedtime," says
Jason, "because he has an 8:30 p.m. curfew."
"Don't broadcast it!" says Johnathan. "Everybody in school will
know what time I have to go to sleep."
"So what?" says Jason with an exaggerated shrug. "Now chicks will
come up to you and whisper, 'Hey, Bedtime....'"
"It hasn't happened," says Johnathan.
"'Cause before, nobody noticed us," says Jason. "Now we're
famous. Now we're the Bronx champs. We are golden gods!"
A mere 18 months ago, these golden gods were the greenest of
green. Columbus supplied each player with a set of clubs and a
bag to carry them in. They practiced three hours a day, three
days a week--twice a week at a driving range and once on a course.
Harris had them watch instructional tapes, drive Wiffle balls
into nets, chip from varying distances on the school's football
field. "They worked their butts off," he says.
The Columbus coach requires not only artistry but sacrifice as
well. When Raymond, the team's No. 1 player (he does well to
break 100), finished the third quarter with a 63 average, Harris
barred him from the final regular-season match. Hours of extra
work raised his grades enough to earn him a spot on the
postseason roster. "Ray told me his goal was to make the
playoffs," says Harris. "I told him that his goal should be
making good marks and then playing golf."
Long-range goals were why Jason joined the team. "People told me
you have to play golf if you want to go into business," says the
oldest Bear. A big, burly junior among scrawny sophomores, he
wears his well-gelled hair swept back in a Rico Suave cut. "They
told me most deals are made on the links. Take out your client,
let him win, and the deal is done."
Malik signed on because he thought golf team would look good on
college applications. "Like all the other guys, I live in a
roachy apartment," he says. "With all the gunshots, the loud
music, the fighting over drugs, it's hard to sleep at night. I
thought golf would help get me out of there, so my own kids can
live in a better neighborhood."
The gritty public courses on which Columbus has played most of
its matches--Van Cortlandt and Pelham--will never be confused with
Pebble Beach. Van Cortlandt made headlines a few years back when
management allowed more than 500 truckloads of construction
debris to be dumped at the 17th hole. Pelham had its own
unadvertised hazard: Detectives from New York City's auto-crimes
division dug up a car buried off the 14th hole.
At Brooklyn's Dyker Beach Golf Course, where the Bears opened the
PSAL playoffs last month and where autos are sometimes abandoned
in the rough, the club insignia should be a car with a line drawn
through it. The Bears take the subway to Dyker--a two-hour ride.
"Did you bring your passport?" Harris asks Vinh. The Vietnamese
emigre has never been to Brooklyn.
Raymond, the rehabilitated No. 1, misses the train. Nobody even
knows if he's been in school that day. Another sophomore, Steven
Hernandez, takes his place. As Jason sings to the straphangers
with tuneless determination, a woman argues loudly with herself
and weeps. Malik gives her a searching look. "What's the matter?"
the woman snaps. "Haven't you ever seen an actor rehearse? I'm
practicing my lines."
When the Bears reach Dyker, there's no time to warm up. Their
opponent, McKee-Staten Island Tech, has been on the putting
green for an hour and a half. In contrast to the hip-hop couture
of Columbus, the more seasoned Staten Islanders wear
color-coordinated outfits. "We come here with our heads held
high," intones Johnathan before beginning the nine-hole, team
match-play competition. (On each hole, the team with the lowest
cumulative score wins.) "If we lose, we walk out with our heads
"Agreed," says Jason. "We can break some kneecaps afterward."
Huffing and heaving, Raymond arrives at Dyker two minutes before
the first group tees off. "I got held up in Holocaust class," he
alibis. "The teacher wouldn't let me leave." He grabs a club from
his ragtag bag and walks, wheezing, to the tee box. "Asthma,"
In the misty drizzle Raymond addresses the ball, pulls his
driver back slowly and then whips it forward on the downswing.
Thwack--his ball weakly slices into an oak about 30 yards away.
Staten Island's No. 1--a senior headed for Rutgers--takes a
mighty rip that produces a lovely drive right down the middle.
"Oh, my god!" says Jason in his low washboard voice.
The tee shot of Malik, the Bears' No. 2, is a pop-up that
wouldn't have made it out of the infield at Yankee Stadium. When
the No. 2 Staten Islander chisels 250 yards of real estate off
the 363-yard par-4, Jason gasps, "Oh, geez!" After shanking his
tee shot onto an adjacent fairway, Jason turns to Harris and
extends a hand. "It was a good season," he says.
"It isn't over yet," says the coach. If only that were true.
Jason takes seven more strokes, finally rapping in a two-footer
for a quadruple bogey. The Bears badly lose the 1st hole. They
come a little closer on the 2nd as Malik actually beats his
opponent by chipping in a 20-footer from the edge of the green,
but alas, the Bears drop the first five holes and lose the match
5 and 4.
Playing out the nine for fun, Vinh--whose robotic stroke seems
designed by R2D2--sinks a sensational putt. "The perk of this job
is watching one of my guys make a good shot," says Harris,
beaming. "It keeps them coming back."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JAMES REXROAD It took Vinh (left), Johnathan (right) and Malik two hours on the subway to get to the Dyker Beach course.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JAMES REXROAD Trapped in the city Malik, an emigrant from Sarajevo, remembers bunkers of a far different kind from his childhood.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JAMES REXROAD Home, boys After their disheartening playoff loss to a team from Staten Island, the Bears begin the long trek back to the Bronx.
"Half our guys didn't know which end of the club to hit the ball
with," says Zarensky, "and none had set foot on a golf course."
On the subway a woman argues with herself and weeps. "What's
the matter?" she snaps. "Haven't you ever seen an actor