Alex Fernandez was 12 when he was introduced to golf by his next-door neighbor.
That simple act of kindness led to Fernandez earning a golf scholarship to Barry University, a two-year pro golfing career in South America and six months spent caddying for LPGA star Cristie Kerr, who was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2010.
Now, three decades after first striking a golf ball, Fernandez is giving back to the game he loves in perhaps his most significant way yet.
Fernandez, who has run the Key Biscayne-based Crandon Golf Academy since founding it in 2007, is helping to provide free golf lessons/education for children as part of the PGA Junior League. The location for the eight-week program is Hialeah’s Country Club of Miami.
“We’ve had about 50 kids show up our first weekend, and 90 percent of them are black. Ten percent are Hispanic,” said Fernandez, 44. “None of them had ever touched a golf club before.
“The community response has been overwhelming. The kids were humble. The parents were fantastic.
“Teaching golf is my livelihood, and seeing these kids having a blast was priceless. To hear them saying ‘thank you’ to us coaches brought tears to my eyes.”
During the first weekend of instruction, the kids — ages seven to 16 — practiced putting and chipping. Last weekend, they took full swings with irons and drivers.
Coming up, they will work on pitching and bunkers. They will take a deeper dive into the rules of the game and course etiquette, and — for the final three weeks — they will work on playing actual rounds of golf.
Fernandez worked on a similar program in 2016 and 2017. It was called the Miami Children’s Initiative, and about 200 kids came out to Crandon Park to play golf and tennis.
“It was a huge production, but it was just one day,” Fernandez said. “I wanted to do this as a league. I want to see if some of these kids can actually stick with it because there are a lot of benefits to golf.
“Besides the social-networking aspect, golf also teaches core values of honesty and integrity.”
Fernandez said he has eight instructors working with the kids in small groups. The groups are broken up into ages seven-to-11 on Saturdays and 12-to-16 on Sundays, a set-up that provides for lots of personalized coaching.
Lauren Court, the PGA Junior League’s regional manager, helped obtain nearly $15,000 in funding for the program. The kids, among other things, all got free uniforms, which will help them feel they are part of something bigger than just individual golf classes.
“This is about building community,” said Court, who played Division I golf at Georgia State. “Golf can feel like being on an island if you don’t have friends or teammates who also play.
“It’s refreshing to see these kids get golf balls in the air in a less-pressurized environment. This program is a reminder that golf can be fun and should be fun.”
Fernandez, who spent eight years as St. Thomas University’s golf coach, said there are 453 registered golfers in the PGA Junior League, and 175 of them are playing at one of his three academy locations: Country Club of Miami, Crandon Park and Palmetto Golf Course.
The brother of University of South Florida women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez, Alex Fernandez said that, as a child, he fell in love with the sound of his club hitting a golf ball.
“Once I got into golf, I dropped every other sport,” Fernandez said. “My parents divorced when I was 14, and I couldn’t afford golf fees. So, I volunteered at golf courses. I would. clean the carts or the lakes – anything I could do to play golf for free.”
Fernandez is hoping to instill that same passion for golf to the kids he and his staff are coaching during this introductory eight-week program in Hialeah.
So far, he sees potential.
“Right off the bat, we’ve seen athletes,” Fernandez said. “The hand-eye coordination has been overwhelming.”
Sofia Perez, 5, is one of those young kids who showed up a couple of weeks ago at the Country Club of Miami for her first golf lesson.
She was so excited that she woke up at 5 a.m., asking her parents:
“Is it time yet to play golf?”
Her father, Manny, wanted to introduce her to a sport that he never played, which, he said, will keep him from second-guessing her performances on the course.
So far, it’s working.
“I like the sound of the driver when I hit the ball,” Sofia said. “Can I tell you something funny? My dad teaches me, and he doesn’t know how to play!”