Tee Time

Lee High School dropped football, deciding golf was a better sport for its kids, no matter how poor or new to this country they might be

Justin Pineset has been class president at Lee High School two years in a row. The senior shadowed the mayor twice and has monthly meetings with the superintendent. He has worked at the Museum of Natural Science for the past four years. Pineset wears a white silk shirt and tie to school on an average Wednesday, and gives PowerPoint presentations at student assemblies.

He hopes to earn a scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he wants to study architecture, law and education. Pineset wants to coach high school football and serve as a school principal. He also plans to be elected mayor, then governor, then president of the United States.

Right now he's trying to get elected homecoming king. But what he really wants is a home.

Justin Pineset gets ready for a long drive.
Daniel Kramer
Justin Pineset gets ready for a long drive.
Justin Records is the team's most enthusiastic member.
Daniel Kramer
Justin Records is the team's most enthusiastic member.
Principal Steve Amstutz says no one complained when he cut football.
Daniel Kramer
Principal Steve Amstutz says no one complained when he cut football.
April Ayers plays with pink golf tees.
Daniel Kramer
April Ayers plays with pink golf tees.
Lashay Howard was in coach Ryan Rhodes's math class last year.
Daniel Kramer
Lashay Howard was in coach Ryan Rhodes's math class last year.
Driving the cart is Justin Anderson's favorite part of the game.
Daniel Kramer
Driving the cart is Justin Anderson's favorite part of the game.

Pineset and his mother were evicted a year and a half ago. Since then the 18-year-old has been living with friends, crashing for a month or two at a time. "I try not to stay too long," he says. He planned to drop out of school this fall and work full-time at the museum. But teachers and school counselors convinced him to come back. The principal gave him a job working as a clerk in the main office during off periods and after school.

For Lee High School, Pineset is not that unusual. Because Lee is an unusual school. It has one of the most diverse student bodies in the district -- composed mostly of lower-income just-arrived immigrants. Lee's principal, Steve Amstutz, has had to do things differently from his colleagues.

Like dropping football.

Lee is the only comprehensive high school in Houston that doesn't have a football team. But it does have a golf team. And at Lee, a homeless boy like Justin Pineset can walk right up to the tee and get off a 250-yard drive.Two years ago, Westside High School opened and drained 1,000 students from Lee. After that exodus, there weren't enough guys to field a football team, says Principal Amstutz.

Located in the Gulfton area, the school has students from 72 countries who speak 40 different languages. About 10 percent of the school's 2,200 students have been in the country less than a year. The vast majority of the school is Hispanic. "But that covers from Nuevo Laredo to Tierra del Fuego," Amstutz says. "We're from the top of Mexico to the south of Argentina. And I've got kids from everywhere in between."

In those countries, they don't play football, Amstutz says. At least not American football -- they play soccer. Lee's homecoming is celebrated with a mariachi band at boys' and girls' soccer games. "A high school in Texas cuts football? That's shocking. That's almost sacrilegious. But we got no complaints," Amstutz says. "I got not one phone call. None. Zero. Zip."

Robert E. Lee High School opened in 1962. Lamar High School was crowded; Lee served Lamar's surplus students -- who were predominately affluent white kids. "It was a sea of white faces," Amstutz says. "They all looked like me."

The school was a pet project of the United Daughters of the Confederacy's Robert E. Lee chapter number 186. The chapter donated portraits of the general, stocked the library with Civil War books, and presented the school with a rebel flag. The school's symbol was the general's family coat of arms. "It has a squirrel on the top holding a nut," Amstutz says.

Three years ago, the school dropped the Confederate general's first and middle initial and changed the logo to a four-point-star-bodied person. "People think we stole it from Cingular," Amstutz says. The portraits of the general have been taken down.

In the 1970s, members of Lee's girls' golf team practiced every day, according to an old copy of the school newspaper, The Traveler. With the shift in the student body, interest in golf died out and the team disappeared. "Most of our students have never played golf before," the principal says. Both the boys' and girls' golf teams were resurrected around the time football was cut. Today, the golf teams consist of six guys and four girls. Only one player is white.


There are three Justins on the boys' golf team. On the driving range, Justin Records swings and misses the ball. He swings again, hits the ball, but it doesn't make it to the netted backdrop.

"That was a sissy shot," his mom screams at him. Elaine Salazar is sitting outside the chain-link fence, a few feet behind her son. She's been thrown out of Little League games for yelling at the umpire.

She says he's bunting the ball; he needs to hit harder. He can do better, she says. He has a good swing, but he's not concentrating. She yells directions at him. He holds up the club and tells her to take a shot. "I can't," she says, lifting the hem of her red dress. "I'm wearing heels." And besides, she doesn't play golf.

Her 15-year-old son wants to be an archeologist and study Mayan ruins. Records reads Clive Cussler novels. He took flying lessons, but since he was too young to get his pilot's license, he quit.

When he was a toddler, his grandfather let him sit on his lap and drive the golf cart. After his grandpa died two years ago, Records joined the golf team.

He's the team's most enthusiastic player, says the coach, Ryan Rhodes. "He's been raring to go for weeks," the coach says. Records picked up the game fast, too. "He hit his first par after only a couple of months of playing," Rhodes says.

On the first day of practice Records rides with the coach to the golf course -- so he'll get an extra 20 minutes of putting time before the rest of the team arrives.

Near the end of practice, the coach hands the golf bag to Records and asks him to carry it.

"Do I look like your slave?" Records asks.

"No," the coach says. "But you look capable."

From behind, his mother yells, "Make him run!"


Fifty years ago, most members of Lee's current golf team would not have been allowed to play on any public course in Houston. Back then, the courses were for whites only.

In July 1948, four African-American men tried to play a round at the Hermann Park Golf Course. They were turned away. Afterward, City Council debated building a separate course for blacks -- one councilmember offered to donate the land, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Before the sport was officially segregated, a federal lawsuit was filed against the city by five African-American men -- three physicians, a funeral director and a beauty school owner. They were A.W. Beal (who started Beal's Health Clinic in the Fifth Ward), W.J. Minor, Hughes J. Lyman, Milton A. Pruitt and J.H. Jamison. The plaintiffs said they paid taxes on public courses and had a right to play. Their NAACP attorney argued that the city zoo had been desegregated since 1927 -- and there was more likely to be friction at a zoo than on a sedate golf course with mature players.

In June 1954, City Council approved an ordinance permitting people of any race to play golf on public courses.


April Ayers draws her club back over her shoulder and accidentally slams herself in the butt. ³Ow, I hit my phone,² says the 17-year-old senior. ³I think I called someone.²

Ayers is the most experienced golfer on the team. She's been playing with her dad since she was eight. They spent hours in the front yard hitting plastic golf balls, perfecting her swing. "I'm not sure how proficient I was at teaching her," says petroleum broker Michael Ayers. "I'm not sure who is more to blame or responsible for it, the golf coach or myself."

Ayers plays with neon-pink golf tees, wears sparkly eye shadow and loves shopping at the Gap and on ULTA.com. "I'm just like every other girl at Lamar," she says. Which is where she wanted to go to high school, but her older sister was attending Lee when she was a freshman. She has friends at Lamar, and attends their Friday-night football games.

Last year she petitioned for both an on-campus Starbucks and a football team. "You're supposed to have football in high school. That's part of being in high school," she says. "Haven't you ever seen Varsity Blues?"

Ayers and her dad go hunting for white-tailed deer and wild hog. She has a .243-caliber Weatherby rifle, and is a better shot than her dad. "As I used to tell people, 'She'll shoot your eyes out at 100 yards,' " he says.

She says she's just as deadly on the course. April claims that during one game, she hit a black bird sitting in the middle of the fairway. "I guess he thought it would be a safe place with me hitting -- and it should have been," she says. "But it didn't move. I think the bird hit the ball, actually."

Last year, there were only three girls on the golf team: Ayers and fellow seniors Nadia Gire and Shara Musa. Ayers and Gire have known each other since kindergarten. The two met Musa in middle school. The threesome spent nearly every day together this summer, shopping, going to Crystal Beach and golfing.

A new girl, 15-year-old sophomore Lashay Howard, joined this year. Howard was in the coach's math class last year. She had never played golf, not even putt-putt. She says she was looking for something to do after school, and golf seemed easy. The first ball she hit on the putting green went right into the hole.


Lee¹s teammates fight over who gets to be ranked last -- because the No. 1 player has to compete against the top players at the opposing schools. And Lee happens to be up against some of the district¹s top golf teams, such as Bellaire and Lamar. Lee¹s opposing teams have kids who grew up playing with golf pros. Last year, Lee came in last at district competition; not a single student placed.

"It really is frustrating for the guys and girls to go out there and compete against somebody who's been playing a lot longer and has a lot better grasp of the game," Rhodes says.

At five o'clock on an October afternoon it's still in the 80s. The four students who showed up for the Tuesday practice complain about the heat.

"This is actually perfect weather for golf," the coach says. "You don't want to have a lot of wind -- it'll mess up your game."

Lee's home green is the Sharpstown Golf Course, which looks like a rundown city park with yellow paint chipping off the curb. A man in the pro shop says it's the flattest course in town -- which makes it easier to walk. Behind the shop is a bowling alley-style snack bar that serves hot dogs, hamburgers, granola bars and Gatorade. The course is about four miles from the school. Justin Records usually rides to practice with the coach. The others carpool together, usually stopping at CiCi's Pizza for a prepractice snack.

The Sharpstown Country Club Golf Course was built in the 1950s. It had 50 sand traps, special grass and five lakes stocked with bass and perch. The $50,000 Houston Golf Classic was played at Sharpstown in April 1964. The country club closed in 1976 because the owners hadn't made a payment on the $5 million mortgage in five years. Two years later, the city bought about two-thirds of the course; the rest was sold to real estate developers. Iron-fenced backyards with occasional rose bushes edge the course.

Old pecans, live oak and scrubby pine trees grow on the putting green. The coach likes to start the season practicing putting. Since students are so close to the hole, they have a better chance of getting the ball in. Plus, playing on the putting green is free. There's a fee to play on the course. The students don't receive their passes to play on the green until November, the beginning of golf's off season, Rhodes says.

The coach tells the students to grab a putter out of his black golf bag. He takes a ball and demonstrates. It makes it about only halfway to the hole. "See," he says, "it's hard."

Rhodes started playing golf with his dad when he was ten. He grew up in Greenville, about 45 minutes northeast of Dallas. "I'm an amateur golfer," Rhodes says. "I have plenty of problems with my golf game."

He tells students to keep their left arm straight, an eye on the ball, not to sway their hips. With beginning golfers, he just emphasizes making contact with the ball.

"It's not like tennis or basketball or anything where you have an opponent affecting what you do," Rhodes says. "No one's hitting the ball back at you when you play golf. You just hit the ball again."


Dragonflies flit over the green. Overhead, traffic choppers fly toward the Southwest Freeway. Justin Anderson sits on the grass cross-legged. He bought a cell phone the day before; he calls teammates who didn't show up for practice. Then he phones the player standing two feet in front of him trying to putt.

The cell is his business phone, he says. Anderson calls himself a young entrepreneur. When his best friend calls, he refers to him as his business partner. The two started a recording, voice-over company two years ago.

He's known as the speaking voice of Lee High School. He does the morning announcements and charges teachers $35 an hour to put together voice and music commercials advertising upcoming school events. People tell him that he sounds like the announcer on KRBE.

Anderson runs cross-country, hurls shot put and was on the wrestling team for two weeks. He quit wrestling when he was elected junior class treasurer. He stayed on the golf team because he wants to be a businessman, and golf is something businesspeople do.

His parents divorced when he was two. He and his mom live with his Puerto Rican grandmother and his Cajun grandfather, a retired geophysicist. He's also part Cherokee, he says.

Anderson first went golfing a few years ago with his uncle, a chemical engineer in Colorado. Driving the golf cart was his favorite part, he says. "And it still is."


Justin Pineset grew up in the Third Ward and hung out with gangs. In elementary school, he says, he had a "behavior problem" and acted out and swore all the time. Now, he speaks in a soft, measured voice. He smiles and greets everyone who walks into the school office. When the special education class walks by, they all pound on the window and smile and wave at him. One student runs into the office and gives Pineset a big hug. He knows all the special ed kids' names.

The seventh of ten children, Pineset wants to have 13 kids of his own. He says he and his mother moved around every few months. One of his sisters is in the army, he has a brother in the air force, and another brother is incarcerated -- he doesn't know why.

Sitting in the school's main office, he says he's trying to figure out how he can pay the health insurance fee to make himself eligible for the golf team. School, he says, is the only thing he looks forward to.

Down the hall is the principal's office. Amstutz has an open-door policy. Kids stop in throughout the day to see his snake, Howie. The other corn snake, Ramona, died last month. Teachers and students stopped by all day telling Amstutz they were sorry for his loss. The walls are covered with Harley paraphernalia and family photos.

Even the über-positive Amstutz thinks the golf team isn't good. But they're just starting, he says. His goal is to encourage kids to join sports teams, make a commitment and learn how to stick with something. Plus, being involved in sports helps keep kids in school. It gives them a reason to come back each day.

When a girl on the cross-country team told Amstutz she finished dead last in a race, he said, "That's great." She had fun, he said, and she tried. Which was the whole point. "I don't care if we ever win," Amstutz says.

He wants to support "lifetime fitness," and golf is a game that kids can play through retirement. There are currently two junior varsity girls' soccer teams. "That's not unusual in the suburbs. But for us, that's a big deal," he says. "We'll find the money to buy the cleats. We'll find the money to buy the shin guards."

Amstutz thinks it would be fantastic if enough students signed up for golf to field two teams. "That would be a problem I would relish," he says.

Football still isn't on Lee's future program. A cricket team is being debated, and Amstutz says he's "really intrigued" by the idea of starting a long-distance cycling team. He'd like to have kids race in the MS 150. Amstutz makes an effort to support any sport that students want to play.

"We're trying to figure out how to get enough kayaks in our swimming pool to learn kayaking and canoeing."

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