SAN BERNARDINO, Calif. - The sport of golf has become vastly popular in Indian country and one name that stands out as a leader in Native youth golf is Gene Webster Jr. The 18-year-old college freshman of Navajo and Ojibwe descent has already earned himself a reputation as a talented golfer following the path to professional golf.
Webster has won 1st place in the Native American Junior Golf Tournament three times - in 2003, 2004 and 2005 - and he took home the gold medal in golf at last summer's North American Indigenous Games in Colorado.
Throughout his high school career, Webster also placed high in countless competitions throughout California, which helped to put him on the college scouting radar. He was offered a full scholarship to California State University San Bernardino where he now attends and competes on the men's golf team.
Webster picked up the sport in an unusual way, and it was love at first swing. At the age of nine, he watched Tiger Woods win the 1997 Masters Tournament and felt inspired by the career of a fellow minority.
''After I saw that I kind of got an itch for golf,'' Webster said.
His brother's girlfriend's mother happened to have a spare set of ladies' golf clubs hanging around in the garage that she let Webster use, and by his own determination he began to play.
A golf club near his San Bernardino home offered Saturday morning golf clinics for kids. At his request and persistence, Webster's parents dropped him off at the club every Saturday at 10 a.m. and picked him back up at 1 p.m. The cost of the clinic was $10; the club's professional golfer gave lessons, and each child or teen was given a bucket of golf balls.
Webster didn't know anyone else at the club, and none of his friends nor anyone in his family played golf, but something about Tiger Woods' win got him interested in the sport.
''That's all I really did,'' Webster said. ''If I wasn't in school I was on the golf club or baseball field.''
Just a couple of years after he picked up his first golf club - right before entering high school - Webster competed in his first tournament.
''I was nervous,'' he said. ''I had no idea what to do. I think I shot an 83. I didn't win though.''
It may have been his first loss, but nothing was going to derail Webster's plans to pursue golf. Just one year later he was unbeatable.
After placing 10th among high school golfers in the San Bernardino region during his freshman year of high school, Webster stepped up his game and came back to win 1st place in the school league the following year and for the next two years as well. He was the first to win three years in a row in his high school.
While competing with his high school team, Webster was also busy traveling the country with his parents and little brother to various golf tournaments, gaining experience and proving that he was serious about the sport.
''My parents were probably wondering where I got it from, since no one else in my family golfs,'' Webster said.
Back home, Webster joined two youth golf tours - the Junior Amateur Golf Scholars and the International Junior Golf Tour. Both tours showed him what competition was out there and what he needed to continue on with the sport.
Though there aren't many Native golfers around him,
Webster has his mind set on being one of the first to go pro. He hopes to join the PGA Tour sometime in the future.
''That's my ultimate dream,'' he said.
Webster said his two role models have been Notah Begay III and Tiger Woods. Both, said Webster, stand out to him as being minorities who've succeeded in golf.
While he continues working towards becoming a professional golfer, Webster has the love of the sport to keep him grounded.
''I just love the value that it holds,'' he said. ''I love the challenge. It's just a game that you can never really master.''