As a Maryland state trooper for two years, Michael Wheeler was increasingly frustrated by the repetitive nature of the juvenile offenders he encountered.
The Baltimore native said kids committing the same offenses over and over underscored to him the judicial system's lack of a deterrent to criminal behavior.
So Wheeler, golf instructor at Bellewood Golf and Country Club in Pottstown, wants to create a nonprofit, "Alleys to Fairways," that he hopes will help break that cycle by exposing kids in trouble to the game of golf.
In doing so, Wheeler said, he hopes the youths learn about honesty, integrity, and friendship as well as putting and driving and chipping.
"You need to learn honesty because you keep your own score in golf," Wheeler said. "And these kids will meet dozens of other kids at clinics and make new friends, some with similar interests."
"Golf is a great way to get exposed to integrity and friendship and new people."
Wheeler, 28, said he plans on hosting clinics at two Pennsylvania locations for youths involved with the judicial system some time next spring.
"All of the parole officers in the area have been really welcoming of the program," Wheeler said.
In 2007, Wheeler, a former pro golfer on the National Golf Association's Hooters tour, partnered with a Baltimore church to offer a clinic at which about 20 juvenile offenders were taught the fundamentals of golf.
Two years later, Wheeler was delighted to learn that about half of the participants returned to play golf on a regular basis, and 90 percent of them did not reenter the judicial system.
So, after leaving the Maryland state police in 2011, Wheeler moved to Reading and started working on his business plan for "Alleys to Fairways." His goal, he said, is to draw more than 100 participants at his first clinic.
However, getting the program off the ground has not been easy, Wheeler said.
"There's really nothing like this program, which is part of the struggle of getting it started," he said.
Some golf course owners are hesitant to open their facilities to juvenile offenders, Wheeler said. "That automatic notion is what needs to change," Wheeler said.
Learning to recover from a mistake - like many offenders must - is one of the benefits of golf, Wheeler said. When a player has a bad shot, he or she has to move on and not let it define their game. In the same way, these kids should not let their mistakes define them, Wheeler said.
John Manser, golf coach at Cheltenham High School, said golf is frustrating because consistency takes time to achieve. However, if a player sticks with the sport, the skills acquired can be taken off the course, he said.
Manser said he has seen his players become increasingly calm and focused from freshman year to senior year as they learn to deal with this frustration. His players then apply this attitude to their schoolwork and other facets of their lives.
Manser said golf can open career opportunities, and some of his players have gone on to study turf grass or play golf in college, like Wheeler did.
"The biggest obstacles to playing golf are access to course time and the monetary aspect of getting golf clubs," Manser said.
Leila Mackie, the player development coordinator for the Philadelphia section of the PGA of America, praised Wheeler's idea of targeting young people who might not otherwise have access to the game.
"It's hard to get exposed to the game if you don't have an avenue or a person," Mackie said.
Looking forward, Wheeler said he wants local judges and district attorneys involved in the program, and he sees a day when a judge tells a juvenile offender to enroll.
Steven Custer, chief of juvenile probation in Montgomery County, said he had never been approached about this type of program. But he was intrigued when he met with Wheeler on the golf course a few months ago.
"We're willing to try whatever might work," Custer said.