Welsh pro leads French youth to the fairway

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The Independent Online

Faten wants to be the world champion. Or rather, since he is only eight, he insists that he already is the world champion. The child of Arab immigrants, lives in a modern, leafy, violence-guns-and-drugs-infested outer suburb of Paris. His ambition is not to be selected for the French football team, like Zinedine Zidane or Nicolas Anelka. He want to be the word champion at golf.

Faten wants to be the world champion. Or rather, since he is only eight, he insists that he already is the world champion. The child of Arab immigrants, lives in a modern, leafy, violence-guns-and-drugs-infested outer suburb of Paris. His ambition is not to be selected for the French football team, like Zinedine Zidane or Nicolas Anelka. He want to be the word champion at golf.

Faten, and his cousins Dadar and Reda, aged nine and 10, are among the youngest (and most enthusiastic) pupils of an extraordinary and, at first sight, absurd programme created in the deprived suburbs of Paris by a Welsh golf professional.

Bill Owens, 42, is teaching the children of some of the meanest public housing estates in Europe to play a game associated in France with privilege and snobbishness.

His organisation, AGE, Association de Golf Educatif, promotes golf as a sport and a form of social therapy, a means of self-fulfilment and a way of teaching individual self-reliance and generating respect for oneself and for others.

"We are providing an alternative drug, a harder drug," said Mr Owens. "Golf is the hardest drug of them all. Once you have hit your first ball, you've got to keep on doing it. It's a fix. We are encouraging the kids to change from one form of grass to another."

Golf and suburbs go together. But not in France. The jumble of concrete and asphalt surrounding Paris to a depth of 20 miles (with islands of wealth) is the French equivalent of the British and American inner cities.

In one Parisian suburb last week, a 14-year-old boy was shot dead because he was, wrongly, identified as a member of a gang from the next housing estate.

There used to be no golf courses in these suburbs or banlieues. In France, the links traditionally lie much further out, deep in the countryside, associated with exclusive clubs for the rich.

Paris now has four small, makeshift but successful suburban courses, created by Bill Owens and his pupils. Some are on old football pitches. In Les Mureaux, 20 miles west, his course is in the grounds of an old château, besieged on all sides by council flats.

This is just the beginning. His idea has now won the approval of the French golfers' federation, local authorities and the government. There are plans to extend "educational golf", until now funded almost entirely by charity, to every socially deprived and violence-haunted suburb in France.

This could mean hundreds of small, nine-hole courses; and tens of thousands of would-be Tigre Woodses. On the day we visited, Bill Owens's golf class looked like a Bennetton advertisement. Eight 17- and 18-year-old girls, all shapes and sizes, black, brown and white, two in Islamic head scarves, others with long, frizzy hair, some in dresses, some in jeans, were learning the art of driving a golf ball.

"You must remember that the ball is you and that you are the ball," Mr Owens tells them. "You do not relax from your swing until the ball - in other words, you - has landed, which should take seven seconds."

In his introductory form of golf, the ball is one-third the weight of a normal ball (chiefly to spare the lives of passers-by). The girls, who came from a local lycée, seemed bemused, even bored, at first. At the end of two hours, they were evidently hooked. They enthusiastically helped Bill to recover the balls, scattered for up to 50 yards in all directions.

" C'est chouette, le golf," said Céline, 18. (Literally, golf is a small cabbage or golf is "cool". "OK, it's a game for the rich. But why shouldn't we be able to play it too?"

Bill Owens, born in Liverpool, brought up in Lampeter, came to France as a golf professional 10 years ago. His concept of golf as a social and political weapon extends to organising joint sessions for police officers and gang members and even games of golf between rival gangs.

Football matches in the Paris suburbs often turn into gang fights. The league in one département north of Paris was suspended for months after repeated brawling on and off the pitch. But inter-gang golf matches have been violence-free, so far. "I'm not looking for champions, although there are plenty of kids with talent, especially the girls," said Mr Owens. "I'm not interested in golf as a sport so much as golf as a way of teaching people to look at themselves differently.

"These kids are used to doing everything fast, without thinking, of following others, of blaming others. When they play golf, they are playing only against themselves. They have to learn to take things slow, to concentrate, to put the divots back, to pick up the balls, to understand and respect the space around them."

At each educational golf centre, he has trained instructors to take over from him when he moves to the next place. At Les Moulineaux, his trainee instructor, employed by the local council, is Makhtar Hadjri, 42, a youth worker and boxing coach.

"Golf is very different," said Mr Hadjri. "There are other individual sports, like boxing or swimming, but none I know of where the little fat guy can come along and do as well as the big sporty guys. The gang-leaders swagger in to the classes then it turns out they can't hit the ball.

"Everyone laughs. Everyone is reduced to being an individual again, not just a gang member with no identity."

Faten and his cousins, practising on their own during the school lunch-hour, gave a different reason for the lure of golf. "In football, you get hurt all the time," he said. "In golf you can build up your muscles but you don't get hurt."

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