DETROIT – Martin Siml loves golf and he wants the kids of Detroit to love it too.
“I want them to learn how to play, how to love it and bring to them a lifetime sport, a passion they can enjoy for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Siml, a 50-year-old Southfield resident who grew up in Taylor, has for three years been building a grassroots high school golf program largely with players who had never played the game before at a school that had not fielded a team for several years.
He has developed a team of girls over three years and a team of boys the last two years at Renaissance High School, one of Detroit’s public schools where high school golf teams have disappeared in recent decades because of funding shortages.
His efforts have not been limited to Renaissance students. He has golfers from Cass Tech, Cody and Henry Ford involved, too, and the Michigan High School Athletic Association has allowed those golfers from other schools to compete in the state tournament structure as individuals.
The Renaissance girls’ team even hosted an MHSAA regional golf tournament last fall at historic Rackham Golf Course, which the school believes might have been a first for a Detroit public school.
“It’s building slowly,” Siml says. “COVID has killed me with recruiting players and raising funds this year, but we have teams and we’re trying to make progress.”
Martin Siml, Renaissance golf coach
Siml, who also coaches tennis at Renaissance, doesn’t draw a salary. Funds are not available for golf or tennis coaches. He is the very definition of a volunteer coach when he isn’t working the midnight shift at his real job as a surgery technician at Henry Ford Hospital.
He coached baseball and then soccer first, games of choice in his youth. He didn’t play high school golf, opting for baseball instead. The game, however, was slowly introduced to him by his grandmother who he would visit each summer, and who belonged to the fabled Chicago Golf Club.
“I want to give these kids a special experience in golf like I’ve had,” he says. “I want them to experience a great course like Rackham with Donald Ross history, I want them to experience the nature, the birds, the sunshine while playing golf along the river at Rouge Park, and I want them to one day be able to experience the humbling effect on your game at a place like Arcadia Bluffs. I want to make the love of the game a possibility.”
Siml, 50 and a father of four with his wife Tanisha, said sports impacted his youth, and he was drawn into coaching baseball for his oldest son Nicholas. At the urging of friends he was soon coaching a middle school soccer team at Mumford and ended up starting tennis and golf programs at Renaissance. He continues to coach the tennis team, too.
His golf teams practice at Rouge Park Golf Course mainly because of geography, and on weekends they hit Royal Oak Golf Center where Glenn Pulice allows high school teams great access to the practice center. He is always recruiting and fundraising, sometimes visiting schools at lunch time to talk with kids about giving golf a try.
“I tell them give it two weeks and see if you like it,” he said. “It’s not for everybody.”
Some stay and play.
“It has been easier with the girls to be honest,” he said. “The boys want that instant gratification you can get in basketball, football and baseball where you hit a shot or hit a pitch, make a play, but golf starts with having to develop a swing and its hard.”
Nia Heaston of Detroit, a senior at Renaissance, is one of those who gave it two weeks and has stuck it out. She suffered a knee injury her freshman year and was unable to play basketball, and Siml first got her involved in the tennis team and then the golf program.
“Golf is really a great pastime and I feel like it is always there when I need it,” she said. “It’s affordable with the programs I’m in and I like the fact it is outdoors. I love being outside, and as this spring it is one of the first things I will end up doing outside.”
Heaston, who is also involved in basketball and tennis in school and boxing and taekwondo out of school, said golf will be a lifetime sport for her. She is happy Siml talked her into trying it.
“I will definitely always have a set of clubs, and probably a membership somewhere to play golf, you know a league or club,” she said. “I tell my friends to give it a try. Like in basketball, you miss all the shots you don’t take. If you don’t try golf, you are going to miss out.”
The daughter of Joseph and Nancy Heaston said students in Detroit need coaches like Siml who encourage attempting something they never thought they could do.
“Golf is hard and you won’t be good at it right away, but I gave it a chance and it is probably one of my favorite sports to do now,” she said. “Coach Martin is great. He really cares about you and your future, not just about golf. I think because he has a mixed-race family he also knows golf is not a sport a lot of minorities ever get the chance to play.”
Renaissance golf team girls
Glenn Pulice, a PGA professional and general manager of the Royal Oak Golf Center, is a member of the GAM’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee and works with the popular Midnight Golf Program in Detroit as well. He calls Siml and his efforts above and beyond the norm.
“We have probably 25 teams, including junior varsity and varsity teams, that practice at our facility, and there are a lot of great coaches who do great things and then there are those like Martin who look even further down the road and have a vision,” he said. “We’ve talked about what he is doing and his next step is to get the kids in the middle schools going with the game. When they get to high school they will be in a better position to compete and enjoy the game.”
Pulice believes in Siml’s efforts to the point he has donated thousands of golf balls to the cause, as well as several golf clubs, bags, and shoes to some beginning players.
“When I started here nine years ago our demographics were very tight and we needed to get more kids, women, family and diversity in our customers,” Pulice said. “It’s working and with it we meet coaches like Martin and Renee Fluker of Midnight Golf who just don’t give up on kids. They stick with kids and believe in them. When Martin added players from Cody and Cass last year, I thought that was just spectacular. He is impacting communities by helping kids.”
Funding is the primary reason golf and tennis teams have fallen by the wayside in the Detroit public schools over the years according to Josh Lopez, the athletic director at Renaissance. He said Coach Martin, as most including Lopez refer to him, doesn’t let the hurdles that stop others stop him.
“I feel lucky to have him here,” Lopez said. “I wish I had 10 Coach Martins in my school. He is a great guy, he is dedicated, and it’s phenomenal to see how he gets any and all kids involved – black, white, Asian, Hispanic – he does anything he can to get golf clubs in their hands, get them involved in raising funds and get them involved.
“Just yesterday we had a kid say he wanted to start golf, but he didn’t have golf clubs, golf balls, shoes, nothing. Coach Martin said all you have to do is come out and practice and play. And I know Coach Martin will find him clubs, whatever it takes, to get him out there.”
Lopez said Martin networks though the community and seeks donations of equipment and even places to practice and play.
“He is the face of golf and tennis at our school and he amazes me how much he is there on a volunteer basis and how dedicated he is to our schools and community,” he said. “He is so passionate about it, too. I wish all coaches had that passion. He has done something we hoped would happen but didn’t think would happen. When we hosted the golf regional last year at Rackham it was so awesome to be out there and see our kids out there playing, competing with other schools.”
Lopez wonders, too, when Martin finds time to sleep.
“He is at the hospital all night and then he is at our school trying to get kids involved at lunch and then with the team, just amazing,” he said.
Martin said he finds time to sleep but is also dedicated to coaching and seeking ways to make golf happen in Detroit schools. He works with First Tee and the Police Athletic League, and he has his kids enroll in Youth on Course through the GAM Foundation where they can play rounds of golf for $5 for less at participating golf courses. At Cody recently he was told he can develop an indoor training center in two currently empty rooms, and he plans to make it happen.
“My goal is to double the number of schools or players involved in golf every year, and that’s not easy when you lose players to graduation,” he said. “We have four schools involved now, instead of one. I should have 30 players on our teams by fall, depending on COVID.”
He has some help from other volunteer coaches, including a former player in the program. He also said Nick Macy, the manager at Rouge Park, and Pulice have been a great help in multiple ways.
“The kids will play, they just need to be asked, and people will help if you ask them, too,” he said. “I just try to make that happen. I’m really just a humble guy who wants to give kids a game they can enjoy for the rest of their lives.”