It was a chance meeting. A golf pro teaching ladies at Wescott in North Charleston is approached by a long-haired little boy on a bike with a basket full of used balls.

The boy had a noticeable twitch, a slight speech impediment and was reluctant to make eye contact. “Wanna buy a golf ball?” the young boy shyly asked. The pro, Perry Green, replied, “What are you gonna do with the money?”

The boy said he intended to use the money to buy a bucket of range balls at the golf course because he wanted to learn how to play the game. The golf teacher looked at the ladies he was teaching and they decided they would buy all 18 of the balls in the basket and gave him $20.

Little did anyone realize that moment would change Perry Green’s life, as well as the boy’s.

Two months later, Green discovers Jim Martin and his long-haired son, Ricky, on the Wescott driving range. It seems that Ricky had been saving his money so that he could take lessons. So Perry found a smaller club that Ricky could swing and a short time later, the lessons began.

As his father watched from the clubhouse porch, Ricky started swinging away with commitment and intensity. Soon, Ricky made contact that sent the ball airborne. From the porch, the father started to cry. Green noticed.

Gifts and struggles

Turns out that Ricky was diagnosed with autism at age 3. Everything he had tried was so tough to accomplish. Kids at school picked on him. The dad was overcome with emotion that day because Ricky was succeeding in something.

This was just the beginning.

Green has been teaching golf around the country for 35 years. He’s got a special place in his heart for teaching the game to young people. And he quickly developed a more special place that he reserved for Ricky Martin.

Green decides Ricky should get involved in The First Tee program. It’s a youth development program that uses golf to teach kids life skills.

Once a week, Ricky attended those one-hour classes learning not only to swing a club, but also how to set goals and deal with conflict.

One of his early goals? He wanted to make the junior varsity golf team at Fort Dorchester High. There was a minor hurdle, though. Just to try out, he’d have to cut his long hair.

No hair? No problem. He cut it and he made the team.

He also made other changes. Once shy and reluctant to look others in the eye, he now introduces himself to total strangers. During a recent awards ceremony, he grabbed the microphone and helped hand out prizes.

“Ricky’s unlike any student I’ve ever had,” Green says.

What if?

Green still wonders what would have happened four years ago if he’d merely shooed the young boy away and told him to peddle his used balls elsewhere? How would both their lives be different?

Ricky, now 16, is still small for his age. He doesn’t hit the ball as far as some of his teammates. But between his continued involvement with The First Tee program and the high school team, he casts quite a shadow on the practice range at Wescott.

Golf was the vehicle that brought Ricky out of his shell. There still are some challenges he faces, but he’s meeting them as they come and looking them straight in the eye.

It’s no longer just dad who tears up when he sees Ricky on the driving range, now the “old pro” gets emotional every time he tries to tell Ricky’s story.

Reach Warren @ 937-5577 or wpeper@postandcourier.com