Double-par pickup is score to beat at Hiram Johnson High School

Hiram Johnson assistant golf coach Royden Heitz shows Quan Vuong, who is trying golf for the first time, how to properly grip a gold club.
Hiram Johnson assistant golf coach Royden Heitz shows Quan Vuong, who is trying golf for the first time, how to properly grip a gold club.

Practice started for the boys high school golf season last week and Hugo Yeh was all smiles throughout Hiram Johnson’s opening two-hour session.

If the potholes, storage containers, concrete slabs or blaring music from cars driving past on the other side of the chain-link fence had any negative impact, it didn’t show.

While most Sacramento-area teams were getting their games in shape at golf courses throughout the region, the Warriors gathered in the far corner of the field behind the school.

The smell of freshly mowed grass was the same, but golf is different at Johnson, where economics dictate a spartan approach. The donated clubs are hodgepodge, spikes are worn by the other team, getting to a course is a substantial obstacle and success is not measured in birdie or par but in how many holes can be completed before the maximum of double par is reached.

Yeh, a junior in his third season, had his best score last year, an 18-over-par 54 for nine holes. Hitting wedge shots in gaps between the school’s softball and baseball teams running past, he showed ability. He just needs more course time.

He already has the right attitude.

“Other players always get mad when they mess up,” said Yeh, who has one birdie and “three or four pars” in two years. “I just giggle. I think, ‘Why are you mad?’ 

Small victories

Chris Latino was an All-Metro football and baseball player at McClatchy in the early 1990s. But golf, taught to him as a teen by his uncle, is the sport that stuck, as so often is the case.

He was teaching at his alma mater when greater job security led him to Johnson seven years ago. When an offer to return to McClatchy came a year later, he opted to stay put.

“A lot had to do with the kids here,” he said. “They had trust issues. They didn’t make eye contact. They figured I was just going to be another teacher passing through. It hit me in the gut. I thought I could do more here.”

A physical education teacher at Johnson, Latino, 41, made it his mission six years ago to build a golf team at the school gutted in academics, athletics and enrollment in the early 2000s by West Campus, once a satellite campus, becoming a stand-alone school and the opening of Rosemont High School.

He introduced golf into the P.E. program to teach basics and see if anyone had a knack for it.

“Not a whole lot of takers and not a whole lot of talent,” Latino said.

He kept at it. The kids who played often had him as a teacher and did so as a favor. Only a few had held a club before.

None of his boys teams have won a match in which the other team fielded a complete squad. He’s had one player break 50 for nine holes on a regulation-length course – a 49 at Land Park.

His team’s goals are different from most, Latino said.

“How many times do you not have to double-par pickup,” he said. “Sometimes a kid will finish one hole. That’s a start. Next time let’s finish two. Small victories.”

Meet the team

This year’s team features four returning players. That kind of experience usually translates to athletic success. In Johnson’s case, success will, in all probability, still be relative.

Yeh tops the ladder.

Luck Vuong, a senior, is in his third year. He had not picked up a club before coming out but said he was “hooked” the first time he got on a course.

He made his first par last year, and although he shot in the 60s and 70s for nine holes, he said his opponents were understanding.

“Other players know they were in my place at one time,” he said.

Academically, Vuong ranks fourth in his class of 362 with a weighted 4.04 GPA, so he’s way better than par where it really counts.

Brandon Yang, a sophomore, has the best natural swing of anyone on the team and the potential to be the program’s best player in years, Latino said.

Quan “Big Quan” Tran, a senior, played his first two years. At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, he has the power to do some damage.

Quan Vuong, a freshman, is Luck’s younger brother and also a top student. He held a club for the first time during last week’s opening practice and said he found the game interesting.

He’s used to succeeding in the classroom and may need an attitude adjustment on the course.

“I don’t like making errors,” he said.

Good luck with that.

There are rumblings about “that Russian kid” coming out, which would make for a full squad in a sport where six play and five scores count.

A team physical is $30 per golfer, which is a deal-breaker to some. Green fees for matches are $8 and covered via an annual fundraiser. The real obstacle is transportation – a van is provided for matches, but the team otherwise has to find its own way to the course.

“Roy and I take them to Cordova when we can,” Latino said.

A big assist

“Roy” is Royden Heitz, who was Latino’s youth baseball coach. When he got word last year that one of his favorite former players was having a tough go with the golf team at Johnson, he volunteered both his time and money.

He may be a retired painting and decorating contractor, but Heitz, 68, was born to coach. A hulk of a man, he banters with the kids, who eat it up. He exudes positive energy. He might help them with their golf game, but he will ensure they have fun.

To Yeh, trying to get his legs more involved in the swing: “It’s easy. You only have to do three things right. I’m going to be on you all year.”

To Luck Vuong, who has yet to break 60 for nine holes: “This is my Asian Rickie Fowler. He’s going to skip college and go pro.”

This is Heitz’s second year with the team. He bought chipping and putting mats that he spreads along the concrete slabs among the fluffy weeds. He purchased a half-dozen wind shirts to give the players a sense of team and something to keep them warm and dry. He’s determined to get the kids to the course more often this year, even if that means driving them and helping pay for their green fees and practice balls.

“I had good coaches when I was growing up,” Heitz said. “I remember the embarrassment of trying to learn something and not getting it. I say ‘choke up,’ and then it hits me – they don’t know what that means. There’s a whole bunch they don’t know. I add humor so they don’t feel so bad.”

Serious ... stuff

Yeh rides his bike to school. Last year, Heitz didn’t want him pedaling home in the dark after an early-season practice, so the coach told him to throw his bike into the back of his pickup so he could take him home.

At their destination, gun shots rang out while Yeh was unloading his bike. They ducked, Heitz inside the truck’s cab and Yeh outside the door. They raised up slowly together, Heitz said, their eyes meeting through the window.

“He says to me, ‘We’re sort of ghetto over here, coach,’ ” Heitz said.

Latino has a story with a decidedly unhappy ending. Justin Wu, a 2015 Johnson graduate and the only player to qualify for the postseason during Latino’s tenure, was killed in the fall after being hit in the head by a stray bullet while playing a video game in his apartment bedroom. The Vuong brothers live on the same street as that apartment complex.

“It paints a picture of what we’re dealing with over here,” Latino said. “There’s nobody at Jesuit worrying about that. They’re worrying about trying to break par.

“We don’t want a pity party, but the situation we’re in, it’s kind of hard not to.”

Latino and Heitz are 10-handicappers who know the game. They not only teach their kids the fundamentals of the golf swing but also the etiquette and rules of the game. They’ve had a few players accused of playing a little too slowly, but never of cheating. That’s a source of pride.

Other teams with better players have been gracious to Johnson’s players, the coaches emphasize.

It all factors into why the pursuit is worthwhile.

“There’s nothing like being out on the golf course,” Latino said. “It’s a great outlet and that’s what I want them all to have. If I can’t bring them to golf, I want to bring golf to them.”

Steve Pajak: 916-326-5526, @Steve_Pajak

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