Sport | Tāneatua

Golf boys from Tāneatua win gold and warm hearts at The Mount

In basketball boots, with borrowed clubs and a beaming smile, Bayleigh Teepa-Tarau had a great time ripping up the pristine fairways of Mount Maunganui Golf Club.

The 12-year-old from Tāneatua had only ever played three games of golf in his life before this week and doesn’t yet own a handicap.

Now, he is the new champion of the nine-hole golf competition at the Zespri AIMS Games, amassing a staggering 87 Stableford points from his three rounds, his booming drives and unerring irons never wavering.

Bayleigh’s autism has meant that until recently, he spent most of his time in class under his desk, not speaking.

This week in Tauranga he strode confidently from tee to green, his expression lodged somewhere between casual focus and easy joy.

His Tāneatua golf team cut a colourful swath through the course this week at the AIMS Games in Tauranga, a week-long intermediate-age sports tournament with almost 12,000 young athletes from 373 schools around the country and overseas. There are 25 sporting codes on offer.

The boys from Tāneatua chose golf and were playing against students from schools around New Zealand.

As well as winning his own title, Bayleigh helped his schoolmates Pedro Robinson and Lincoln Reriti to the team title as well.

By the time Bayleigh parred the third and fourth hole and came within inches of an extraordinary eagle on the last, it wasn’t so much a victory march as a procession.

‘I’m so proud of him’

For his parents Hemi Tarau and Pare Teepa, his koro and nan following in a cart, and various other supporting relatives, seeing their boy emerge in the past year was worth a thousand of the gold medals draped around his neck.

“Oh, I’m so proud of him,” dad Tarau said.

“I’m surprised at how well he did because of his autism but then I’m not surprised. He wasn’t really a sports kid a few years ago but he’s just got right into it now and it has done amazing things for his confidence.”

On Bayleigh’s bag over the three days was Tāneatua School teacher-aide Whetu Wiremu, although their journey together has been much longer than that.

“He never used to even talk to anyone,” Wiremu said. “I’ve done heaps of work with him for the last couple of years just to get him out of his shell and into sport and I just treated him like I treated all the other kids. He ain’t no different in my eyes.”

Wiremu himself has been a recent convert to golf, roped into a round last year by Ōpōtiki Golf Club junior convener Mickey Huriwaka.

When Wiremu discovered that Bayleigh was always swinging a stick around, and had been ever since he could walk, he decided to introduce him formally to golf.

Along the way, he roped in some others too – six eager young boys eventually travelled to Tauranga representing Tāneatua, funded by the school’s board of trustees.

Even then, there were some hurdles – a late grant fell through, and Wiremu had to ring around some mates to borrow clubs for his young charges to use.

“For the last two weeks, it wasn’t really about taking them out on the course to practise golf. I was taking them out to practise golf etiquette and all that stuff. At the start of it, when someone was hitting the ball, they’d be running in front of people and trying to chip on the greens. They’ve come a long way and for them to improve that much in such a short amount of time, honestly, I’m just so proud.”

‘It’s really emotional because I know the backgrounds of our kids’

Tāneatua is a small town just outside Whakatāne that many pass through but few stop. It’s had its fair share of gang strife and remains – to use ugly bureaucratic jargon – a low socio-economic zone.

Like many spots in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, however, it’s also filled with heart.

Te Ahuru Waititi, Tāneatua School’s sports co-ordinator, sat in the Mount Maunganui Clubrooms, tears welling and voice cracking. Outside, the club veterans were just about to tee off, the car park brimming with Mercedes and Lexus badges.

The juxtaposition wasn’t lost on Waititi who, because of costs, hasn’t been able to get a team to the AIMS Games in more than a decade.

“It’s really, really emotional for me because I know the backgrounds of our kids and the hardships and the trauma – it’s really hard-out,” she said.

“We are lucky because Whetu is really keen on golf – he plays in his spare time and about 20 kids have been going to practise golf on a Monday. It just gives them opportunities outside of the normal sports like netball and rugby but it’s also about just trying to get them life experiences outside our community.”

The golf team’s gold medals were the first for the school since their memorable 2008 netball triumph, featuring a future Black Ferns star Stacey Fluhler.

But the school has had many leadership changes since then; it was only this year Waititi was able to get a trip to AIMS – for the golf team and a netball team – over the line.

“AIMS Games has amazing facilities and the kids get to be around different types of people – it’s far more than just sports. It’s a safe environment with good people around and without any competition – all the competitors are really quite supportive of each other.”

Wiremu, meanwhile, grew up in nearby Ruatoki and is currently studying to be a teacher, having served a three-year teacher-aide apprenticeship. He played rugby and league and touch as a kid but has a sneaking suspicion that golf could be an even better pathway for his young students.

“They come from a place where there’s poverty, gangs, drugs, violence, and for them to have this type of opportunity to see and meet people like this is just real heart-warming for me,” he said. “They enjoyed meeting people and playing good golf was just an absolute bonus for them. They’re here, they’re making friends and they’re having fun doing it.”

Down the road in Ōpōtiki, Huriwaka is singing from the same song sheet. He brought five boys and three girls from Ōpōtiki Primary up to the AIMS tournament, with three of them finishing in the top 10.

Tokyo Hargreaves (61 points) was second and Kobey Kingi (56) third, while Precious Herman’s 43 points were good enough for ninth.

Last year, Huriwaka won New Zealand Golf’s Community Coach of the Year award for starting the Rangatahi Junior Golf Development Programme. He promotes and cajoles and supports dozens of young Eastern Bay kids, using golf as a vehicle for change.

“Golf itself is such a good social networking opportunity, and it teaches a lot of the young ones a lot about themselves,” he said. “That’s why I love teaching young kids about a sport that I love.”

And even though Bayleigh’s phenomenal efforts cost his own Ōpōtiki team the title, Huriwaka was one of his biggest cheerleaders for the week.

The ripples of his own programme are spreading and, indirectly, he can claim credit for the win too.

‘He doesn’t know how good he is’

Back to Bayleigh and his autism, briefly – his dad Tarau suspects there’s something in the spectrum disorder that could be perfectly suited for golf.

“It doesn’t really fluster him too much if he does a bad shot,” the proud dad mused. “He just likes hitting, so he really doesn’t care. And he doesn’t know how good he is – although he’s getting told a lot about that in the last couple of days!”

The next step is to get Bayleigh support to compete in the Special Olympics, while Wiremu let slip a little secret – basketball is actually Bayleigh’s best sport.

He’s awestruck by the skills he’s seen the young man display on court and loves the thought of him being involved in a true team sport.

For now, Bayleigh is heading back to Tāneatua School, a grin fixed to his face, ready to celebrate his success with his schoolmates.

Word of his golden run has already spread back to the Eastern Bay, where local business Waiotahi Contractors said they would buy Tāneatua’s newest champ a set of his own golf clubs so he can continue on his sporting journey.

And to cap an incredible, inspiring week, which showcased that rare beauty that sport can occasionally elicit from the human race, the last word has to go to the star of the show.

A kid to whom giving a media interview a week ago, let alone a month or a year, would’ve been completely unfathomable.

“The thing I love about golf is hitting my driver,” Bayleigh Teepa-Tarau said.

“I dreamed about coming here and finishing in first place. And I had a lot of fun.”