"Other programs house the kids in dorms and solely focus on golf. Our kids are immersed in golf, but by living with host families, they're also engrossed in American culture."
If you've teed ap on any number of Wasatch golf courses in the late summer, chances are you've run into several dozen sharp-dressed Japanese teens on the green.
Ranging in age from 13 to 17, the athletes of the Utah-Japan Golf Program have hit courses in the state since 1986.
During 10 days of instruction, the 40-plus recreational golfers drive, chip and putt with the goal of returning with sharpened skills to a country where the sport is virtually inaccessible to youth because of the cost. A single round of golf in Japan can run between $125 and $175, nearly triple the cost on a Utah course, and Japan's strict club rules often don't allow entrance to those under 20.
Here, says the program's director, Brad Richard, teens have a chance to surround themselves with the sport and experience life in the United States by living with a Utah family. "There is no other program like this in the world;' he says. "Other programs house the kids in dorms and solely focus on golf. Our kids are immersed in golf, but they're also engrossed in American culture."
Off the green, the teens dine on hamburgers and tacos, shop for American gifts for their families back home, go bowling and sightsee at the Olympic Park. Most importantly, Richard says, they get to practice English while improving their golf games. This immersion gives the kids an advantage when competing for college admissions.
Richard, along with his Japanese wife, Shiho, are the perfect coordinators for the Salt Lake City-based program. Brad Richard, a Utah native turned golf pro, heads the American operations while his wife, a native of Nagoya, orchestrates the Japanese logistics.
As a high school freshman in 1994, Shiho Richard left Nagoya to participate in the program. "My parents wanted me to learn English," she says. Five years later, she was asked by the program's coaches to be an interpreter when she returned to Salt Lake to pursue postgraduate studies at the University of Utah. Brad Richard was coaching the Japanese kids after returning from a University of Utah exchange program at Shinshu University, where he "scraped by with enough Japanese to pass the courses;' he recalls. "Shiho translated my clinics, and I pretended to be able to speak Japanese. I was smitten."
They married and now are commuters between Nagoya and Utah.
After making the Utah-Japan Golf Program a nonprofit organization in 2011, the couple decided to expand the vision. "The aim of the program over the next few years is to make this cross-cultural experience available to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds," says Richard. "Negotiating affordable airfare, supplementing student fees and offering scholarships are all things we can do now because of our nonprofit status." The key, he says, is finding people-host families, volunteers and donations-to help support the effort.
The Utah-Japan Golf Program teaches more than golf, Richard says. "Meeting Shiho turned my life in an entirely different direction." And fortunately for him, it also improved his Japanese.