Bill Backman has never met legendary golfer Babe Zaharias but he’s helping the world-class athlete fulfill her dream one swing at a time
As the chief executive officer of the Babe and George Zaharias Golf Foundation, Backman is helping to enrich the lives of disadvantaged youth through golf as Zaharias strived to do before she died in 1956.
“All we are doing is giving unconditional love,” Backman said.
Backman and other Zaharias Golf Foundation officials are demonstrating that love through the Jubilee Program, a pilot program launched by the foundation about a year ago to help struggling youths and juvenile offenders build self-confidence by learning to play golf.
The goal of the Babe and George Zaharias Golf Foundation, a Tampa-based nonprofit organization, is to teach golf to physically challenged and disenfranchised youths in the Tampa area.
Last fall, Backman introduced the game to seven boys serving time at the Columbus Juvenile Residential Facility at 9502 E. Columbus Drive near Brandon.
He visits the juvenile detention center once a week to preach, counsel and mentor boys ages 12 to 18 ordered there by juvenile court judges.
A 50-bed residential program for youth offenders is hardly a place to learn to play golf, or so some thought.
Backman taught the boys the basics of golf using instructional equipment called SNAG, or Starting New at Golf.
The SNAG concept was developed by former Professional Golf Association tour players Terry Anton and Wally Armstrong.
It covers the basics, such as how to grip a golf club, proper alignment, posture and stance. Participants also learn rules of golf etiquette, the history of the game, proper safety and swing fundamentals.
SNAG plays a vital role in the Jubilee Program, said Backman, a former director of Bay Area Youth for Christ. The hands-on learning experience offers participants instruction on how to properly hold a golf club and hit a golf ball. It also passes on a spiritual message of love and hope.
SNAG equipment looks and feels a lot like real golf clubs and golf balls. The instructional program uses golf clubs with oversized club faces and multicolored tennis balls that are similar in weight and size to real golf balls.
Participation in the Jubilee Program is based on a boy’s ability to consistently display good behavior, Backman said.
Three teenagers scheduled to be released from the detention program in a few weeks got a chance to test their golfing abilities on a golf course this week.
They met Backman, foundation president Hal Shaw and other Zaharias Golf Foundation representatives at the Terrace Hill Golf Club, 7740 Temple Terrace Highway, for a couple hours of instruction and practice time on Tuesday evening.
It was a much anticipated trip for Jeff, 18; Xavier, 17; and Austin 16, who had been practicing their golfing fundamentals for weeks.
“It’s a graduation gift for these guys who have displayed exceptional behavior,” Backman said.
Several others were eligible for the field trip but did not attend. Two boys went home after they were released from the program. A third teen made other plans.
“This is really cool stuff,” Backman said. “The kids really like it. Their behavior in the facility has really improved.”
The pilot program at the juvenile detention center targets boys who are nearing the end of their stay at the center. Many of the boys have been ordered to serve from 12 months to 24 months for felony and misdemeanor crimes.
It was the third time the Zaharias Golf Foundation had hosted a golf event for teenagers at Terrace Hill, a 9-hole golf course, Backman said.
“This is pioneer work that we are doing,” Backman said, referring to the Jubilee Program. “We want to set up prototypes to introduce it across the state and nation.”
Many children who had never seen golf before are embracing “a clean, healthy learning environment through golf,” he said. “We want to open these kids’ hearts and minds to something new.”
Leslie Kalavsky, a foundation staff member and photographer who accompanies Backman on trips to the juvenile detention center, said she hopes to expand the program to a nearby juvenile residential center for girls.
Babe Zaharias, a world class athlete in several sports from the 1930s to 1950s, inspired young people in her day to learn to play golf.
Zaharias gained fame at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, where she won two gold medals and one silver medal in track and field. A founding member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA), Zaharias won 48 professional golf tournaments and 17 amateur tournaments. She and her husband George Zaharias, a pro wrestler, lived in Tampa in the 1950s before she died of cancer in September 1956. She was 45.
The 18-hole Babe Zaharias Golf Course on Forest Hills Drive in Tampa is a city-owned property and is not associated with the foundation.