Christopher Columbus high, a public school in the Bronx, has the air of a besieged bunker. Security guards man every entrance and exit, like sentries on perimeter defense. Cops troop back and forth in the halls, ready to swat the cap off any student impertinent enough to wear one. To get inside the lines, be prepared to give your name, rank and serial number.
On a dare last month, 15-year-old sophomore Johnathan Rodriguez tried to slip through the metal detector in the lobby with his golf bag. The clubs triggered an alarm louder than any Bronx cheer. "If 14 metal poles hadn't set that thing off, it would've been funny," Johnathan says.
Johnathan and his buddies on the Columbus golf team have been setting off bells and whistles for two years. Last season—the team's first since the sport was axed in 1987—Columbus was 5-1 in intraborough match play and shared the Bronx schoolboy title. This year the scruffy squad of mostly first-and second-generation immigrants had that honor all to itself, running its string of regular-season victories over Bronx opponents to 11. "At the start of 2000, half our guys didn't know which end of the club to hit the ball with," says Harvey Zarensky, the school's athletic director, "and none had ever set foot on a golf course."
Bosnian refugee Malik Tekesinovic barely knew what golf was. "Where I come from, golf courses don't look like golf courses anymore," says Malik, who grew up on the mean streets of Sarajevo. "The fairways are full of craters from mortar shells, so everybody just plays soccer."
On the mean streets of the Bronx, the sports are baseball, basketball and football. "That's the extent of it," says Columbus coach Norm Harris. "It's hard to get kids even to think about golf."
Still, eight public high schools in the Bronx offer golf, which has an even longer tradition in the borough than the Yankees. Babe Ruth used to spend off days from the House that He Built playing Van Cortlandt Golf Course, the oldest muni in the country. Gene Sarazen learned the game there, and that's where young Chi Chi Rodriguez fine-tuned his.
For decades at Columbus, Al Oglio, a health teacher and a dean at the school, coached the sport, which had played a dark role in his family history but which he loved all the same. "Golf killed his twin brother," says gym teacher Bob Gregory. "A ball hit him in the head." Al Oglio died 13 years ago, taking Columbus golf with him.
It wasn't revived until 1999, when Harris walked into the principal's office and offered his services. A retired TWA vice president with a 20 handicap, Harris lives six blocks from the school. Though he had never taught golf, he had plenty of expertise with teenagers. "I've raised seven," he says. "Being able to anticipate and understand teens is a big plus."
Harris is measured, contemplative and autocratically benign. He rarely raises his voice, whether he's dispensing advice, reprimanding his players or razzing them into fits of helpless laughter. "You've got to be extremely fair and equal to all," says Harris, "no matter how well or badly they play." He calls his team the Bad News Bears.
Besides the obvious derivation, the Bears got their name from Barry (Bear) Raju, the only senior on last year's team. Raju became a semimythic figure last spring for something he did while mulling the foot-long putt that would propel Columbus into the Public Schools Athletic League playoffs against the top teams from the city's other four boroughs. As he drew back his putter, Raju spied a quarter on the ground. Dropping the club, he crouched and pocketed the coin, not realizing that the quarter was another player's marker.