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Actor Lucas Black Helps Fight The Decline Of Golf

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The Move To CoMo

Her name was Maggie O’Brien. She had just graduated from the University of Missouri and was waiting tables for a few months before starting law school at MU. The cast of “Killer Diller” came in for a kickoff party at the now-defunct Dali’s. O’Brien was starstruck.

It wasn’t Black who piqued her fancy; she didn’t know who he was. Instead, she wanted to meet one of the film’s other stars, Ashley Johnson, who played Kirk Cameron’s kid sister, Chrissy Seaver, on the 1980s hit show “Growing Pains.” Black tried talking to O’Brien, but she dismissed him, believing his Southern drawl was a put-on. “I thought he was faking his accent and mocking people from Missouri, like we were hillbillies,” she says.

Although she remembers Black being “nice and cute,” when he asked for her phone number, she ignored him. As the cast left the restaurant and headed to the parking lot, O’Brien offered Black some leftover cake from the restaurant — “just to be nice,” she says. Black ate the whole piece in front of her, which she thought was funny. When he called soon after (she had relented and given him her number), she agreed to a date.

“Killer Diller” filming lasted only four weeks, but Black decided to stay in mid-Missouri while O’Brien attended law school. He bought a house. O’Brien graduated in 2006. The couple married in 2010. And they’re still here.

The Blacks enjoy the intimacy of Columbia — similar to their hometowns of Elsberry, Mo., and Speake, Ala. — but they also like big-city conveniences of the area. “It seems really lively, but it’s still a small town and you see people you know a lot,” Maggie Black says. “You can see people you know at the grocery store.”

She adds that Columbia’s golf courses (seven in town and more throughout mid-Missouri) are also a draw. As new parents — daughter Sophie Jo was born on Father’s Day 2011 — the couple thinks Columbia is a great place to raise a family. “There’s really nothing I don’t like about it,” she says.

Black says he loves Columbia because there is so much to do here. He loves all the festivals, such as Roots N Blues N BBQ and the True/False Film Fest, as well as Mizzou sporting events. And like a lot of other Mizzou fans, the Alabama native is excited about the university’s move to the Southeastern Conference.

“Now that Mizzou is going to the SEC,” he says, “I’m going to like it even better.

Golf’s Declining Appeal

MU assistant coach John Utley was a golf pro at Perche Creek when he first met Black on the driving range. “I didn’t know who he was,” Utley says. “He was wearing a ball cap, just out there hitting balls by himself. Then somebody said who he was, referencing ‘Sling Blade,’ which I had seen.”

Black has since become a fixture on Columbia golf courses when he’s in town, which he estimates to be a little more than half the year. He plays golf every day when he’s in Columbia. He’s a member of The Club At Old Hawthorne and frequents other city courses.

The actor’s love of golf inspires him to improve the state of the sport. Golf’s popularity is decreasing across the board, particularly among the sport’s younger players. According to the Professional Golf Association, the number of children who play golf has dropped 36 percent since 2006. The decline is causing concern about the future of golf, a multibillion-dollar industry that employs 2 million people.

Rick Grayson, Black’s swing coach and winner of the PGA Junior Golf Leader Award, says one factor of the decline is the lack of children on the course. The Springfield instructor compares golf to soccer, a sport that’s become wildly popular in America during the last 20 years. According to the U.S. Soccer Federation, 4.5 million athletes were registered in youth, adult and professional soccer leagues in 2011; about 94 percent of those players were 18 and younger. Locally, the Columbia Soccer Club opened in 1975 and has since become one of the Missouri’s top youth soccer programs.

Nearly every child has played soccer at some point, whether he or she was a star forward or the one doing cartwheels in the goal. Soccer is still the go-to introductory sport for young people. Golf, on the other hand, is rarely considered as a child’s sport. “Ten years ago, there were no programs for a 5-year-old trying to play golf,” Grayson says.

To combat the diminishing numbers of young players, U.S. golf enthusiasts are trying to raise interest among youths. In Missouri, Grayson started the Heart of the Ozarks Junior Golf Foundation and raised $60,000 for equipment for public schools. Golf is now a physical education requirement for elementary and middle school kids in Springfield.

Grayson is starting to see an impact. “Less than 10 years ago, many of the high school girls’ teams barely had enough players to host a team, to just get five players,” he says. “One school had 17 go out last fall.”

Hoping to generate a similar boost in Columbia, Black’s friend and former Mizzou golfer John Weston started the Columbia Golf Foundation in 2010. Weston’s goal is to give youths the chance to play and learn about golf, even if they can’t afford clubs or greens fees. The organization hosted its first free clinic on June 7, 2010. About 40 volunteers showed up on the first day, including Black.

“He was huge,” Weston says. “He was at camp every day. He took it upon himself to be a real cheerleader, kind of a coach to the kids, and an encourager.”

Black’s biggest contribution to the Columbia Golf Foundation came last February, after a trip to the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. The tournament pairs big names in golf with big-name celebrities. Black was one of the celebrities who shared the course with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Bill Belichick, Bill Murray, George Lopez and more.

Black participated in the 3M Celebrity Challenge, a part of the tournament’s week of events when 12 celebrities play five holes at Pebble Beach to win money for their respective charities. Paired with ESPN Sportscaster Chris Berman, Black won the challenge in a chip-off. He and Berman took home $40,000 each for their charities. Black gave half the money to the Ozark Junior Golf Foundation and the other half to the Columbia Golf Foundation. In both Springfield and Columbia, the donations went to fund golf equipment in schools.

The $20,000 donation is the largest gift the Columbia Golf Foundation has ever received. Grayson credits Black’s enthusiasm for donating to his community as a big step forward to check golf’s decline in Columbia.

“Columbia, Mo., is a better place to live, raise a family and produce junior golfers with Lucas Black in the community,” Grayson says. “The $20,000 could have gone anywhere else. It could have gone to a cancer society, which we know is a good thing. It could have gone to St. Jude, which is also a good thing. But for him to spend that money in Columbia — where he lives — and to promote junior golf, makes that community a better place to live.”

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