On a recent Wednesday afternoon, four golfers from East Mountain High School’s golf team took turns putting on the practice green at Paako Ridge Golf Club. Off to the side, the team’s new head coach, Matt Hibbitts, and assistant coach Nicole Naylor offered instruction and words of encouragement.
The sun was nearly setting over Sandia Crest as each golfer—wearing a mask and standing several feet apart—tapped at a ball and watched it roll toward the cup.
Hibbitts joined Naylor in early October following the unexpected death in September of the school’s golf coach, Crystal Wood. Naylor was Wood’s assistant coach.
Hibbitts and Naylor had been holding offseason workouts a few days a week for about a month and a half.
Hibbitts said he has been golfing since he was 4 or 5 years old but has never coached high school golf.
“I’ve always been around the game and loved it,” he said, adding, “I have a coaching background and they asked if I could help and step in and work with coach Naylor and it’s worked out fantastic so far.”
Hibbitts has several years of experience coaching baseball at the high school and collegiate level.
Hibbitts said there were about 10 to 15 kids showing up regularly to the weekly workouts. Some of the kids have been golfing most of their lives. Others, like Derek Tarman, just started golfing because it was “something to do.”
Hibbitts said the frequent revisions to the New Mexico Activities Association’s guidelines were not that big a deal, particularly because social distancing is inherent in the game. “Look at them right now,” he said, as the players toiled their way around a small pond on one of Paako’s holes. “One guy’s 200 yards away, there’s another guy that’s 75 yards from him. I mean, it’s fantastic. It’s really an individual game.”
The Wednesday workout at Paako Ridge turned out to be the team’s final one for a while. Outdoor recreational facilities are closed under the state’s current public health order, and Hibbitts said Paako is going to close soon for the winter anyway. The course has since closed for the season.
But he said the weekly workouts gave him a great opportunity to get acquainted with the golfers and look over each one’s swing. “My main thing is, you gotta get to know the kids and understand the way they think to be able to help them with their game, so that’s been part of the process” Hibbitts said.
Naylor—who teaches at East Mountain, which is in remote learning—added that it is important for the kids to get out of the house. “They’re getting a little exercise and some interaction with their peers,” she said at the final workout.
Hibbits said he hopes to have the kids get in some rounds of golf at some point before the season starts to gauge how well they play.
“Depending on the weather and the health order, we’ll try to get some tee times to figure out where we’re at,” Hibbitts said, adding, “I think all of them have a chance to develop, each one of them has a very nice swing. If we can smooth a little out and get them to think more of how to stay away from danger while they’re on the course, they’ll be fine.”
The high school spring golf season is tentatively scheduled to start March 22.