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After Nearly Three Decades of Planning, This Man Is Ready To Live His Dream Bringing Golf To Black Kids In Kansas City, Missouri

061920_Chriss Harris On Tee_Moreno.jpg
Carlos Moreno
/
KCUR 89.3
Chris Harris stands on a tee box at the four-hole course he built in part of the Ivanhoe neighborhood. Harris, who quit his full-time job earlier this year, is now totally focused on introducing golf to the young black community in Kansas City, Missouri, and partnering with the First Tee project.

Chris Harris recently quit his job to go all-in on an idea he's had since the early 1990s: run a pitch-and-putt course where he grew up near 40th and Wayne.

The bright summer sun is baking the grounds of Harris Park in Kansas City, Missouri, these days, and Chris Harris is finally seeing daylight in another sense.

As the owner of Kansas City’s only pitch-and-putt golf course—the longest hole on the four-hole course is 65 yards—on the block of 40th and Wayne in the Ivanhoe neighborhood, Harris is about to go all-in on a passion project he’s been planning for nearly 27 years.

The Harris Park course is set to host a First Tee event for kids on August 11, the first youth-oriented event for Harris since his dreams were put on hold in March because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“As soon as I got everything up and going—I got the kids signed up, I got the dates set and ready to go—and then we had to shut down,” said Harris, who quit his full-time job earlier this year as a community advocate at Truman Medical Center to devote all his time to the course

On the same block where he grew up, he’s maintaining the Harris Park daily this summer in anticipation of eventually reopening, giving the neighborhood kids a chance to play a sport they might otherwise never be exposed to.

This project, the kids are going to be around it every day,” he said.

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Carlos Moreno
Chris Harris rides his mower near the corner of 40th and Wayne Street where Harris Park's playground and other amenities sit across from the four-hole golf course Harris developed for neighorhood youth and other partners with with the First Tee project.

‘It was an eyesore’

The Harris Park course officially opened three years ago, but Harris says he was spread too thin between running the course and working his other job.

He’s been multitasking since 1994. That’s when he first started the project by acquiring the properties where several houses sat. Those houses were eventually torn down.

When Harris talks about what he’s done with Harris Park, he uses the term “we” because of the community support behind him. From the likes of Brian Starr.

“It was an eyesore in this direction,” Starr said on a recent weekend. He lives nearby and was back for the summer after playing professional basketball overseas in Belarus. “To come back a few years later and see a full golf course and they’ve got a picket fence up, sand on it, it doesn’t even look like the same scenery over there. It’s weird.”

Not only does Harris have help from the community, but from his own family. His nephew, Darrius Hughes, shows up each Saturday morning to mow. He’s home from college, where he plays basketball at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

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Carlos Moreno
Darrius Hughes finishes mowing part of Harris Park’s golf course on a recent Saturday. Currently a forward for the University of Nebraska-Omaha basketball team, Hughes doesn’t play much golf anymore but now works as part of a crew Harris uses to maintain the park during the summer.

Hughes had golf clubs in his hands as a kid while accompanying his mom, Unice Harris (Chris Harris’s sister), to a driving range.

I was fascinated with how hard and how fast she can hit the ball,” said Hughes.

Unice Harris says her son sunk his first basket at the age of 2, so she knew early what his main passion would be. There was a part of her, however, that had hoped he would be more interested in golf.

“It’s exposing him to life skills through sports and academics,” said Unice Harris when looking back on why she introduced Darrius to golf.

Barriers to entry

The opportunity for black people to play golf is the biggest obstacle to making the game more diverse. That opinion is held even by some of those who are now among the best in the game.

Harold Varner III was one of only two blacks players in the field of nearly 150 at a recent PGA tour stop in Forth Worth, Texas. He collected a check for more than $95,000 for a top-20 finish at that event.

But he made note of the challenges people like him, and the kids Harris is trying to serve in Ivanhoe, face in developing their golf skills.

“It’s access,” said Varner III in a news conference in Texas.

“Anytime somebody wants to be great at something they have to have the opportunity to experience it and learn how to get better. It’s just so expensive to play golf and that’s the problem.”

Harris said helping solve that problem is his main motivation for the Harris Park course.

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Carlos Moreno
Ken Lolles, (left) watches his friend Larrie Durham putt in his third shot during an evening round at Harris Park. The pitch-and-putt course can be played with only one or two short irons and requires some touch and finesse to work around the artificial turf on the greens.

“I didn’t have an opportunity. There was nowhere for me to go,” said Harris, who played golf only once as a kid but always liked the game. “I didn’t know who to talk to to even take me to a golf course.”

The First Tee program is part of the Junior Golf Foundation of Greater Kansas City, an organization attempting for years to get more kids to play golf. Harris hopes the event like the one that will help reopen Harris Park after the pandemic this August will start to change that, in Kansas City and beyond.

“Hopefully, if we can continue to have this thing grow, have one of these (pitch-and-putt courses) in every state around the United States.”

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