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In his senior year at Preston High, Helms made the taxi squad of the golf team. "It took great effort for Nick to compete, especially on courses that were hilly," says Mike Contic, the Preston coach at the time, "but he never complained. More than anything, Nick was an inspiration to the team. The other golfers had more talent but not more desire. His heart is as big as the ocean."
Helms picked up pointers and pocket change working in the bag room at three area courses. The best part was that he could play for free. "Nick's game had serious limitations," says Brad Westfall, a four-time West Virginia PGA player of the year, who worked at one of the clubs. "His handicap limited his swing; he couldn't hit for much distance." Even now, Helms's drives average only about 265 yards.
His golf education took a setback when he was 18. While Helms was working in a roof-bolt factory, the tip of his left index finger was crushed in a 5,000-ton housing press. "You'd be surprised how much you miss your fingertip," he says blithely. "At first it was really painful every time I swung a club, like the worst pinch you ever felt. I had to learn to deal with it."
He dealt with tuition at West Liberty State (95 miles northwest of Newburg, near the Ohio border) by driving a truck and delivering pizzas. He studied golf management but didn't make the golf team. After three years he quit school, dead broke. "I put golf on the back burner to make ends meet," he says. But the ends never met. By the time he got to Myrtle Beach last July, Helms owed $35,000. "It doesn't seem too much until you're paying it," he says.
The $250,000 he got from his father's life insurance policy and the mining company changed all that. He settled his debts, bought new cars for himself and Kristen, and splurged on a $6,000 engagement ring. His biggest extravagance has been the $20,000 he plunked down to enroll at the Myrtle Beach campus of the San Diego Golf Academy. Nestled in a Waccamaw Boulevard strip mall, the school offers a curriculum heavy on teaching techniques and psychology. Students earn an associate of applied business degree in 16 months and play a bunch of golf while doing it. Some graduates go on to become teachers, course managers, sales reps or club technicians. Others wind up working in pro shops for minimum wage.
Classes began on May 1. Helms had his first lesson two days later. In his first open rounds--competitions that are part of the curriculum--he shot 80 and 82. "Nick has a long way to go if he wants to qualify for a PGA Tour card," says Brian Hughes, an academy instructor. "Of course, making the PGA Tour would be long odds for anybody. But if he has the desire and the work ethic, well ... it wouldn't shock me."
Helms's early results have prompted some reevaluation. "If I don't become a pro golfer, I'd like to teach golf," he says. "After I get my certificate from the academy, I'll have a good chance of getting a job in the industry." Until then he'll devote much of his spare time to funding golf lessons for West Virginia schoolkids.
He has already sunk $2,000 of his inheritance into the Terry Helms Scholarship Foundation for Coal Miners' Children. He plans to bankroll the charity with donations, silent auctions and celebrity tournaments. Miles Blundell, the head pro at Nemacolin Country Club in Farmington, Pa., has offered to help organize an event there in 2007.
"My goal is to make my dad proud of me," Helms says. He sighs and his voice drops to a whisper. "Dad gave his life to get me to this point. Golf is what he wanted me to do, and I'll try my damnedest to find a way to do it."