- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 3, 2000

Ten years ago, Felton Mason wanted to do something to keep District of Columbia-area youth out of trouble, so he founded what he calls "Mason's Army," enlisted 8- to 18-year-olds and began arming them with the fundamentals of golf.

"I wanted to give back to the community," said Mr. Mason, 68, of Seat Pleasant, Md., who started the program with a friend, Ernie Andrews, to give neighborhood children an opportunity to learn the game free of charge.

"I wanted to keep the kids out of trouble. I know if you ever teach them how to hit a golf ball, you more or less don't have to worry about them on the street because they don't have time for that stuff," Mr. Mason said.

Since its inception, the number of youths participating in the program has grown from eight to a current 45 black children from the District and surrounding areas. Mr. Mason's "classroom" meets every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for eight weeks from June through August in Northeast D.C.

After a two-hour free clinic at Langston Golf Course earlier this week, Mr. Mason gathered nearly 30 aspiring young black golfers in a semicircle and asked, "Does everybody think they improved today? Is everybody happy?"

Then he told the youngsters, uniformly dressed in baggy shorts, tee-shirts and sneakers, "Class dismissed."

Marcus Manley, a native of Southeast D.C., is among hundreds of youngsters who have benefited from Mr. Mason's program since 1990. Marcus was 8 when he started in the program. Now 15 and living in Brentwood, Md. Marcus is one of the area's top junior players. He finished in second place at the Maryland Professional Golfers Association Junior Championship July 27, shooting an even-par 71.

Mr. Mason's idea stemmed from his passion for the sport, as well as his firsthand knowledge of the difficulties facing black golfers.

Mr. Mason was introduced to golf as a teen-ager in the 1940s when he was a caddy at Beaver Dam Country Club (now Woodmore Country Club) in Mitchellville, Md. After caddying for a few years, he worked in the club's locker room while also trying to qualify for several professional events.

He recalled an incident in Nashville, Tenn., when he and some other black golfers went into a restaurant.

"We had a lot of white boys playing with us, and we all decided to go for breakfast one morning. We went into the restaurant and all the white guys had place mats, but when they were going to give us our breakfast, they just put the silverware on the table. When we found out what was going on, everybody just walked out. The waitress was hollering because all the food was being cooked. We ran across that stuff all the time," he said.

When "Mason's Army" started a decade ago, it was the only program of its kind. Now, coinciding with the growing popularity of the sport, several new programs have evolved, including the First Tee, an initiative supported by the PGA tour.

But Mr. Mason remains unconcerned. Langston has provided his program with golf balls and the use of its facilities free of charge, and several local individuals donate golf clubs, gloves and other equipment.

In addition to Mr. Mason and Mr. Andrews, several other men volunteer to provide instruction to the youngsters.

They start out on the putting green the first two weeks before working on their chipping. By the fifth week, they head to the driving range and also have an chance to play a few holes.

"I was forced to play at first, but then after a while I was into it," said Gino Crump, 12, from Northwest D.C.

"I play a lot of other sports, but this is the best. I've seen a big improvement in my game since I started."

Although Mr. Mason is a golf instructor, the main emphasis of his program is teaching discipline and structure. Thus the name "Mason's Army."

"If you do three things wrong here, you're gone," he said.

"We've already put two kids out this summer. When other kids see that, they get on the ball. If you're not here to learn how to play golf, we don't want you disrupting the class."

Marcus Manley, who still returns to Langston every week to help his mentor, said, "Mr. Mason is like a father figure for me."

"All [the instructors] are great."

That thought is reciprocated by the adults. "I've seen these kids when they couldn't even pick up a stick and now they're hitting the ball," said John C. Snipes, a D.C. resident who volunteers every week.

"It doesn't go a long distance, but I can see the progress. We're proud of our kids. I talk about them all over town."

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