In South Jersey, battling addiction with golf clubs

Instead of attending his weekly sobriety meeting, Chris Berckman packed up his golf clubs and headed to the driving range.

Berckman traded his regular Tuesday night meeting for a different kind of therapy: swinging at golf balls at the Camden County Golf Academy in Pennsauken. He has been sober for 18 months after battling a heroin addiction for years and now faithfully attends sobriety meetings.

“This is recovery right here,” Berckman, 27, of Haddon Heights, said overlooking the driving range on Route 130 on a breezy night this week. “This is pretty much having a meeting. It’s awesome.”

He was among nearly two dozen recovering addicts who enjoyed free golf lessons given Tuesday night by golf professionals. Some had never played golf, while others learned at a young age before their addictions led them down a different course.

“It clears my head,” said Tim Corbett, 28, of North Philadelphia, who got sober through a treatment program in the county. “I can turn to other addicts and alcoholics. Just because your drug is different, we all know the different things we go through. It’s a brotherhood.”

Corbett, who works at a Mount Laurel mortgage company, hopes the fellowship will help him get back on track after a recent relapse on prescription drugs and PCP. He had been sober for about seven months.

For about 90 minutes, the golfers worked on their stance and swing under the watchful eye of professionals who doled out tips and encouragement. The golf clubs and balls were provided free of charge, as were snacks and bottles of water.

“They’re out there to smash some drives,” said instructor Andrew Pierson, who manages the golf academy. “Golf is a great sport. It’s always going to challenge your mind.”

The lessons are the brainchild of the Camden County Freeholder Board’s Addiction Awareness Task Force. They are part of a series of activities sponsored by the Recovery Encouragement Athletic League (REAL) to offer alternative lifestyle choices to recovering addicts. The activities cost about $5,000.

“They seem to enjoy it very much,” Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. said Wednesday. “It’s something that we know is needed.”

The county’s task force has been trying different approaches to tackle the opioid problem, which has become a national epidemic.  It has distributed educational materials and given Narcan to every law enforcement agency in the county to help prevent overdose deaths. Since Camden County’s task force was created several years ago, Narcan has saved more than 700 lives, according to officials.

After a pilot program last fall, the weekly golf lessons began in April. The six-week program ends Tuesday. The league plans to sponsor a softball tournament this summer at Campbell Field in Camden and indoor basketball in the winter. The golf lessons will be offered again in the fall.

Participating in the league is voluntary and is open to men and women from Camden County. Those in recovery are in various stages of sobriety — from 30 days to many years. Most are in their 20s and 30s, and talk openly about addictions that cost them families and jobs. Some, like Steve Smarrito, a client resource specialist at Humble Beginnings, a treatment center with facilities in Cherry Hill and Willow Grove, serve as sponsors for recovering addicts.

“This is another way for people to enjoy themselves and have fun without the use of drugs,” said Smarrito, a recovering heroin addict.  “To do something like this expands the horizons to see there is more to life.”

Jimmy MacDonald, 27, of Gloucester City, said he learned to play golf as a youngster with his father. But “drugs took it away,” and for years he was more interested in getting high on heroin and opioids than playing golf. “I was a junkie,” he said.

MacDonald said he enjoys golfing again and has slowly put his life back together, helping others in recovery at Humble Beginnings as an admissions coordinator and mending family relationships broken by his addiction.

“God gave me another opportunity,” MacDonald said during a break. “ I couldn’t ask for a better life.”

Each golfer was given a bucket of golf balls and assigned a station in  the golf center, which has an aquatic, 60-station double-decker driving range with real grass tees and a sand trap. Some used the time to aggressively swing, burning energy. Others diligently listened to pointers on how to improve their game.

“I’m not that good,” said Berckman, with a sheepish shrug.

Pierson, a certified and nationally recognized PGA professional, used an iPad to videotape the golfers and provide one-on-one critiques.  He is an assistant golf coach at Rutgers-Camden, which manages the golf facility for the county.

“They’re all getting better,” Pierson said. “It’s hard to get great.”

The golfers occasionally show a competitive streak, bragging when a ball flies across a man-made lake beyond the 150-yard mark. They rib each other, too, when an errant ball misses the mark.

But the night is mostly about  camaraderie, even among newcomers who share a common goal: staying sober. As the night ends, many embrace and promise to return next week for another round.

“This is something we do for fun. We’re all in this battle together,” said Ryan Hetrick, 36, of Kensington, who manages a home for recovering addicts in Gibbsboro. A tattoo on his arm reads, "Patience, love and tolerance,” from the creed for Alcoholics Anonymous.