Keeping Busy: Providence's Button Hole Golf Course

Jul 23, 2014

For the next several weeks, we’ll be bringing you stories of programs that keep kids busy during the summer months, for a series we're calling "Keeping Busy."

These programs are aimed specifically towards at-risk youth, many of whom don’t have safe environments to spend during their summer vacations.  This week Rhode Island Public Radio visited Button Hole Golf course in Providence.

Kids learning the perfect putt at Button Hole Golf course in Providence.
Credit John Bender / RIPR

On a steamy July morning, about a dozen kids stand in a circle facing a golf hole on a large putting green.  They place their putters and take practice swings as their coach counts down. They swing and, no one makes it.

From the putting green you can see all 26 lush acres of Button Hole golf course.  Hills slope down to a small pond.  Sand traps carve the land.  A driving range sits at the opposite end of the nine-hole course.  In the distance sirens cut the air. But Button Hole wasn’t always this oasis in a troubled city neighborhood. 

Executive director PJ Fox said the lot sat empty for years.

“You had everything that would happen in an abandoned lot in the middle of a city happening. Everything from cars being dumped, dirt bikes being driven, prostitution, drug deals, unfortunately there was a double homicide up here.”

The course sits in the middle of a gritty Providence neighborhood that’s seen better days.  But it wasn’t always this way.  During Providence’s manufacturing heyday, the land sat down river from a shoe factory, where buttons would wash ashore; hence the name Button Hole.  In the nineties a local businessman and avid golfer, Ed Mauro, organized efforts to secure and develop the land.

Fox said the location was chosen to make the sport more accessible to urban kids.

“There are two Providence Housing authority housing developments. And we’re on the back end of both of those. Where Button Hole is situated; most of the program participants are on scholarship.”

Fox estimates more than ninety percent of the kids using the facility are on scholarship, and the affordable rates are meant to keep them involved even after they first arrive, and provide them with a safe outdoor space to have fun.

“Once you go through one of our [six week] programs, a kid becomes what we call a Button Hole kid, and they’re allowed to hit a bucket of balls and play the course for a dollar until they’re eighteen years old,” said Fox.

Down on the driving range 12 year old Mariah Nugent of Seekonk Massachusetts shows off her golf clubs.

“These are all my irons, and this is my putter, which I play on the putting green, and now I just pulled all these out,” said Nugent.

Button Hole provides most of the kids with free golf bags and clubs; many of them donated. Nugent never played golf before Button Hole, and said none of her friends play.

“They don’t really know, it’s like different.  They do swim, and gymnastics and dance and everything, but I do golf and I like it.”

This is her second summer at Button Hole.  She sets up for a drive, between two low plastic walls, which act as protective bumpers between kids. She leans back swings and misses.

But that’s ok says executive director Fox. Button Hole is not necessarily meant to produce competitive golfers, but expose kids to a sport that requires perseverance, and integrity.

“If we can start to teach kids now at a very young age, what really is integrity, they’re less apt to make those unethical decisions down the road,” said Fox.

And Mariah Nugent says golf is already helping in other parts of her life.

“I would say I’ve gotten better at math.  I really have.  Because I have to measure distances between how far I’m going to hit it, and what angle I’m going to hit it at.”

Imani Ramirez, a fellow Button Hole kid had never played golf before either.  Now he lugs his golf bag to the course regularly to tee-off.

“My mom signed me up, so I didn’t want to do it, but she forced me to come. I thought golf was a boring sport,” said Ramirez.

That was a year ago.  Now his mother, Ivette Laboy, can’t keep him away, and said he never would have been able to do it without Button Hole.

“You know I can’t afford it, it’s an expensive sport, but they have help.  And he’d be here every day if you’d let him.”

But executive director Fox said breaking down economic barriers to golf isn’t important just for these kids, but for the sport itself.

“If golf is to survive there needs to be facilities like Button Hole that can help teach the kids what it means to be successful so that private clubs will have members that will afford it,” said Laboy.

Back at the putting green the kids gather round the hole to give it one last shot before moving on.  One by one they each miss, until finally, one of them makes the perfect putt.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Ed Mauro bought and developed the land.  In fact he simply organized the efforts that secured the land for development as the golf course.