By Farrell Evans, Executive Director and Co-Founder of The Bridge Golf Foundation
On Sept. 23, 2017, three days after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, Lukas Rosario played with friends at the Punta Borinquen Golf Club in Aquadilla.
Though 150-mph winds had flattened 80 percent of the course’s trees, Lukas was content to play the course he had come to love since taking up the game less than a year earlier.
“It was weird playing the course,” said Lukas, a 14-year-old 8th grader. “Sometimes your balls would settle under fallen tree limbs in the middle of the fairways. But it was a pretty fun experience to play after the storm. It was a sad time, but we had golf.”
The eye of the storm hit Crash Boat Beach in Aquadilla, where Lukas’s parents, Jasmine Babilonia and Juan Carlos Rosario, ran a family business that provided banana boat rides, fishing charters and scuba tours.
“We lived off of the business day by day, and with no income coming in and no money in the bank, we couldn’t afford to stay in Puerto Rico,” said Babilonia. “Thankfully, we had a large family in New York that put in their grain of sand to help us get back on track.”
In mid-October, family and friends helped Jasmine and her two sons, Lukas and Jakob, 8, get three seats on a charter to New York during a time when few people were coming out of the country. Juan Carlos stayed behind in Puerto Rico and is trying to figure out if it’s possible for them to rebuild their business.
Through family in New York, where she spent the first 13 years of her life before moving to Puerto Rico, Babilonia found a modest apartment in East Harlem and is working as a substitute teacher to support the boys.
Lukas had perhaps the most difficulty with the transition. Back home he had grown accustomed to riding his bike the two miles from his house to the Borinquen course with his dad’s old Dynacraft clubs slung over his shoulder. He played as often as he liked. Now when he came home, he felt caged in by the walls of their New York apartment.
“I was extremely depressed,” he said. “How was I going to play golf in New York? I knew there were no golf courses in Manhattan.”
Lukas found Chelsea Piers and Randall’s Island, but it was his mother who discovered The Bridge Golf Learning Center. Babilonia said she had a feeling it would be different when she talked to Meghan Costello, the general manager, on the phone.
“I asked her: Could we help this child? Because he really needs his hands on a golf club,” she said. “They have been wonderful to us. Brian Hwang has been a great mentor and coach to Lukas.”
These are the first serious golf lessons for Lukas.
“Since I started working with Brian, I have learned so many things that I didn’t know existed about the golf swing, from the grip to posture,” said Lukas, who is about an 18-handicap. “The technology is amazing.”
Lukas doesn’t own a full set of golf clubs. Since coming to the United States, he has cobbled together three irons (5, 7, 9), a sand wedge and a driver. And he’s looking for a job to help his mother pay for golf lessons and tournaments. In his spare time at their railroad-style apartment, Lukas does golf drills that he learned from Hwang.
“Lukas is a very highly driven, motivated individual,” Hwang said. “He puts all of his free time toward getting better in golf. We are getting him a little more shallowed coming from the inside out. He was way over the top. In Puerto Rico he was trying to hit these low cuts against the wind. I’m trying to get him to reroute the golf ball from right to left to get more control, and so his ball doesn’t spin out in the air.
“His mental game is very mature for his age. So I know that he will grow progressively as long as he works at it.”
While there’s still a chance they could relaunch their business in Puerto Rico, Jasmine, who studied architecture at Northeastern University, plans on giving her son an opportunity to grow as a player by planting long-term roots in New York.
Lukas still longs for his old bedroom, Crash Boat Beach and the Borinquen golf course, but that hasn’t dulled his aspirations as a golfer.
“I want to get as far as I can,” he said. “I want to get all the opportunities that I can and see how far I can go as a player.”