BROOKLINE, Mass. – Sam Bernstein will, of course, be focusing on his golf game during his second round of stroke-play qualifying at Charles River Country Club Tuesday afternoon. But should he have a rough stretch of holes, the 21-year-old New York City native and Yale University rising senior may find himself thinking about some young people in Harlem who help him keep competitive golf in perspective.
During Bernstein’s senior year of high school at the Fieldston School in the Bronx, N.Y., he submitted an application for the AJGA Scholastic All-America Team, which requires an essay. The award is sponsored by HP, and the best-essay winner receives a computer donated to his or her high school. Bernstein’s essay was chosen, and he quickly saw an opportunity to give back.
“I thought another school with fewer resources than mine could probably benefit from the computer more, so I asked the AJGA if I could donate it someplace else,” Bernstein recalls. “I started to do some research and came across the Harlem Children’s Zone.”
Dating to 1970, the Harlem Children’s Zone is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to help address the systemic problems facing low-income residents of Harlem and the surrounding neighborhoods of upper Manhattan. Its president and CEO, Geoffrey Canada, has overseen a well-publicized and successful series of outreach programs that includes the Promise Academy, a charter school that opened in 2004. This is where Bernstein first met the kids who would become an important part of his life.
“I went in to meet with the elementary school principal, and a few of the kids – fourth- through sixth-graders at the time – told me they loved golf and sometimes hit putts in the principal’s office,” said Bernstein.
This is where Bernstein’s original idea of donating a computer turned into a continuing affiliation between him, his family and friends, and a special group of youngsters.
Once he learned of the kids’ interest in golf, Bernstein, whose family belongs to Century Country Club in Purchase, N.Y., began to take some of the kids under his wing before leaving for college.
“We started out just going to Chelsea Piers a couple days a week to hit balls, and I got a couple of my friends from school to come help out and give the kids some basic instruction,” he said. “Then I brought them out to Century one or two times. It was so cool to do those field trips and see their eyes light up when they saw a real golf course.”
Now that Bernstein is at Yale and the kids are middle- and high-school age, golf is just part of their activities. A couple of the kids have visited him in New Haven to see the Yale campus and get a sense of a college atmosphere, and he’s recruited others to help with the cause, including his younger brother, Will, also a talented golfer who plans to follow his brother to Yale next year.
“With me being away at school, I really have to give credit to Will,” says Sam. “It’s great that I got this started but he’s kept it going and gotten others involved.”
Those others include a few former Yale golfers who live in New York, including past captain Ben Wescoe, who continue the Chelsea Piers trips with the kids and make sure they have continued exposure to golf and to the doors it opens.
If Sam ends up getting a job and living in New York after his 2014 graduation, he intends to return to more hands-on involvement. In the meantime, he’s doing all he can to keep in contact with the kids, which he says benefits him as much as them.
“You can easily get frustrated in the grind of being a competitive golfer,” says Bernstein, who shot a 4-over 74 during the first round of stroke-play qualifying at the U.S. Amateur and needed a good round on Tuesday to advance into match play. “But when you think of the kids and how being out a golf course is one of the greatest things in the world for them, you can take a step back and think how cool the experience has been. It makes me want to spend more time with them.”
It’s a feeling that is likely mutual for the golf-mad youngsters at the Harlem Children’s Zone.
Greg Midland is the USGA’s director of editorial and multimedia content. E-mail him at email@example.com.