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Opinion & Analysis

Leaving golf comics for a higher purpose: Rick Newell, LITT and M.U.S.T.

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Rick Newell drew the best golf comic strip ever. No debate. No competition. The four main characters of Life In The Trap, and the troubles they faced (in both golf and life) mimicked our lives in an eerily-accurate fashion. And then, the strip came to an end. Newell and his wife, living in Seattle, were drawn to a higher purpose. The mentoring of urban youth and teens was too large a challenge to ignore. Think about that for a moment: take on not one child, but hundreds, with one goal—to contribute to society. We caught up with Rick this fall, and he was generous with his time. Total transparency: I made my donation last week. Click the logo before, while, or after, reading the interview, and help MUST make hope a reality.

Ron Montesano: How did LITT start?

Rick Newell: My uncle Jerry, who is a great golfer, gave me the idea way back in college (I turn 50 next year). I thought it was a pretty good idea since the niche would be big enough and there would be a lot of material to go with. Plus it would give me an excuse to play. I took a year off in between my junior and senior years of college and traveled through New Zealand and Australia for nine months. I took my sketchbook with me and worked on the characters as I traveled. When I got back I continued to slowly work on the comic strip and started to see if anyone would publish it. A black and white version of Life in the Trap was picked up by a paper in Florida for a time but it did not last and I stopped making the comic strip.

RM: How big did LITT grow?

RN: In 2002 I had a pretty bad personal meltdown. It was the perfect storm in many ways and things got pretty bad. I even started thinking about taking my own life. As I put my life back together I resolved to do the things that make me feel alive and make me feel awake and to not really care what anyone else thought. Life in the Trap was one of the things that had made me feel alive so I resurrected it. Once I added color and put it on the computer, it took off. I made the website (http://lifeinthetrap.com/) which provided an easy way for editors to preview the comic and it was also an easy way for them to receive the most recent comics for the month.

After the website was up, I started to email editors of magazines, websites and newsletters to see if they would be interested in publishing Life in the Trap. The response was good right away and the circulation rapidly grew. At its peak, Life in the Trap was read by over 1 million people in different golf publications around the world.

RM: Who inspired which characters?

RN: Life in the Trap has four main characters: Duff, Clay, Putts and Rosie. They are all combinations of people I know. Duff is named after my dad but his golf game is more like mine. My dad’s nickname was ‘Duff’ when he was young so the relation to a golf ‘duffer’ was obvious.

Clay is named after the man I was named for. My dad played college basketball with an African American guy named Clayborn Richard Jones. My parents named me Richard and I gave one of my characters the name Clay because of him. The inequities African Americans face have been on my heart since I was young because of whom I was named for. Duff is black in the comic because of Clayborn. Clayborn died of asthma before I was born so I never got to meet him but I have always been proud to bear his name.

My mom’s middle name is Rose, which she hates by the way, so Rosie is named after her. Not named after her because she hates the name but because I thought Rosie sounds like a good character and because I love my mom. I knew one of the characters had to be married because of all of the funny material that would be generated between spouses due to the game of golf.

Putts rounds out the crew. One of the characters had to be pretty bad at golf because so many people would be able to relate to him and and one character had to have a short fuse so I put those into one character. The love/hate relationship with golf defines Putts.

RM: What is your relationship and affinity for golf?

RN: My dad taught me golf so I have him to thank for all of the pain and suffering over the years. Just kidding… sort of. Our local course in Seattle was Jackson Park Golf Course. They have an executive course that we would play together and then we eventually graduated to the main course. I was not the easiest kid to raise, especially through my teens and early 20s, but I have very fond memories of playing golf with my dad on that course. I have never been a great golfer but it has always been a regular part of my life thanks to him.

RM: How can golf serve to make the world a better place?

RN: I read recently that if your household income is $50K or above you are in the top 1% of people on the planet. It might not seem like it to some, but we are a very wealthy nation. The average golfer’s household income is over $100K and there are about 24 million golfers in the U.S. That is a lot of wealth. In my opinion, with all of that wealth should come some responsibility. If every golfer in the U.S. picked a cause they cared about and devoted some time, resources and money to it then golfers could literally reshape the nation. There are so many amazing causes out there. Golfers should pick a cause that lights their fire and get behind it.

RM: What are you doing now?

RN: My background is in technology. I worked at big computer companies like Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and Cingular. After my meltdown in 2002, I decided that I did not want to be in the IT industry anymore. It certainly did not make me feel alive or awake. Instead I took a job at an inner-city Boys and Girls Club here in Seattle. I worked there for seven years and it changed my life. My dad was a successful doctor so I grew up not needing anything. Working at the Boys and Girls Club showed me first hand what some families have to overcome to just survive, much less succeed.

During my time at the club I came to believe that the most urgent need in the urban core is positive male role models. I felt that if you could provide that it would help the most number of people. There are many complicated reasons for male absence from the family, so if you can help fill that gap moms would get support and kids have opportunities to flourish. The economy would also benefit. So we started a mentoring program called MUST (Mentoring Urban Students and Teens). MUST finds African American guys who are in college and pays them well to mentor African American guys who are genuinely in danger of dropping out of high school. It is a four-year mentoring program. The big idea is that the younger guys watch the older for four years and begin to think, ‘He comes from the same place I do. If he can do it… so can I!” We are now in our eighth year and it is working better than we thought. Youth that we know would have dropped out of high school are attempting college. It is amazing to watch their courage and determination.

The average high school dropout costs the nation $600,000 or more. Great prevention programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters are less expensive but focus on younger kids. Rehabilitation programs like juvenile detention centers are very expensive and do not have a great track record of successful rehabilitation. MUST is a premium intervention program that exists between prevention and rehabilitation. We find kids who are the most vulnerable before they hit high school and give them a lot of support. One of our mottos is that we will support you all the way through high school…no matter what!

RM: How can we help?

RN: Donations are always great but one of our three core values in fundraising is joy. MUST wants the people that partner with us to take joy in helping us out because we are doing good work. There is more than enough money in the world to solve most of its problems. Literally. If you do not find joy in giving to us then there are so many other great organizations out there doing incredible work. Find the organizations that are solving the problems that pull on your heart and get behind them.

The best way to help us is to get on our newsletter list and start to get to know us. We put a lot of effort into our newsletters so current donors and supporters know what their efforts are supporting and see the difference they are helping. Come check us out and see if it would bring you joy to help us out.

The MUST mentoring model is more effective than we thought it would be. Because of its effectiveness we are now researching to see if the model would work in other communities that have high dropout rates. We are currently asking the Latinx community if they think our model might work for their youth. Pacific Islanders and Native Americans are also vulnerable youth groups here in Seattle. MUSTs goal is to one day have the MUST mentoring model in every major city in the U.S.

RM: Why did you stop creating LITT?

RN: I stopped because it did not make me feel alive anymore. I was working at the Boys and Girls Club and working other jobs to make ends meet and I just did not have time for it anymore. More than a million people were reading it but because I was giving it away for free, I did not make any money off it. Once it started to be a grind just to produce it, I stopped doing it. It is a great body of work that I am very proud of. I wanted to stop before the work I was proudly producing became compromised.

RM: What would it take to bring LITT back?

RN: We are considering bringing it back. Life is full so we will need to make sure. My wife and I have four sons and MUST obviously takes up a lot of time. We would want Life in the Trap to add to our family and MUST and not take away from it. Our oldest son fell in love with golf last year. He has been basketball, basketball, basketball up until high school and he was pretty good too. However, he joined the high school golf team his freshman year and now he loves it. Obsessed with it really. It might make sense to resurrect Life in the Trap.  MUST is a great cause and if we could get the same numbers of readers looking at Life in the Trap a percentage of them might want to follow MUST and help out. Who knows. Stay tuned to GolfWRX to find out!

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Ronald Montesano writes for GolfWRX.com from western New York. He dabbles in coaching golf and teaching Spanish, in addition to scribbling columns on all aspects of golf, from apparel to architecture, from equipment to travel. Follow Ronald on Twitter at @buffalogolfer.

4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Scott Steib

    Dec 12, 2019 at 1:35 pm

    Rick is an unbelievable artist and an even better man! Reading all of this reminds me of just how much I admire him. Thanks to Ronald for this great article about Rick and for enabling me to read some of the LITT comics again! I love it!

  2. Michael Duranko

    Dec 12, 2019 at 9:31 am

    Thanks for the background on LITT, and Rick’s noble cause.
    Please bring back Life in the Trap!!!
    md

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Opinion & Analysis

What does it really take to play college golf?

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Much has been written and speculated about this question, both in popular media and by junior golfers and their parents and coaches. However, I wanted to get a more definitive answer.

In collaboration with Dr. Laura Upenieks of Baylor University, and with the generous support of Junior Tour of Northern California and Aaron R. Hartesveldt, PGA, we surveyed 51 players who were committed to play college golf for the 2021 year.

Our sample was comprised of 27 junior boys and 24 junior girls. Most of our respondents were either white or Asian. As for some other notable statistics, 67% of boys reported working with a coach once a week, while 100% of girls reported working with a coach at least once a week. In addition, 67% of boys were members at a private club, while 100% of girls were members of a private club. Here are some other interesting findings from the data:

-The average scoring differential for a boy who committed to college golf was -1.48
-The average scoring differential for a girl who committed to college golf was 3.72
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-The average girl was introduced to golf at 12 years old
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-The average girl first broke par at 17
-67% of boys and girls who responded reported having won at least 10 tournaments

One of the most interesting findings of the survey was the amount of competitive golf being played. The data shows that 67% of players report playing over 100 tournaments, meaning they have close to 1,000 hours of tournament experience. This is an extremely impressive amount given all respondents were teenagers, showing the level of dedication needed to compete at the top level.

Another interesting showing was that 75% of boys surveyed reported receiving “full scholarship”. At first glance, this number seems to be extremely high. In 2016, in a GolfWRX that I did with Steph Acosta, the data we collected estimated this number was between 5-10%. This number is seven times greater, which could be due to a low sample size. However, I would also speculate that the data speaks to the extrinsic motivation of players in the data set, as they feel the need to get a scholarship to measure their athletic success.

Finally, boys in the survey report playing with a mixture of elite players (those with plus handicaps) as well as 5-9 handicaps. On the other hand, no female in the study reported playing with any plus handicaps. It also stood out that 100% of junior girls report that their fathers play golf. In ongoing research, we are examining the reasons why young women choose golf and the impact their environments have on their relationships with golf. The early data is very interesting and we hope that it can be published by the end of this year. Altogether, we suspect that girls hold lower status at golf courses and are less able to establish competitive groups to regularly play with. This could impact how long they stay in the sport of golf as well as their competitive development.

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