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Priest James, center, shares some golf tips with others at the UC San Diego Health Center Bannister Family House. James is raising money to construct putting greens at hospitals to aid in patients’ healing. Photo courtesy of Mia Torti
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Carlsbad teen spreads love through golf

The heartfelt putt Priest James Rivera stood over was difficult to read. Despite the countless times he had eyed the lie, it was a chore deciding if the ball would break toward the nurse’s station or the hospital parking lot.

“I hit it pretty good,” Rivera said, as he aimed for a glass laid on the floor.

That stroke came in 2019, when a bandaged and battered Rivera had a putter in his hand and a grin on his mug. After suffering significant burns in a school science experiment that went terribly wrong, here was Rivera at the UC San Diego Health Center deciphering if his putt would go right or left.

Priest Rivera. Photo courtesy of Mia Torti

Nearby was his mother, Gina Rivera, seeing the light return to her son’s soul. After an agonizing, weeklong stint in the burn unit, Priest needed all the prayers, and forgiving breaks, he could receive.

“He was a competitive golfer,” she said. “But when he was in the hospital, he had multiple surgeries and was hooked up to everything. He fell into a bit of depression in thinking what his life was going to look like.”

Priest’s vision was to be linked to his trusty Scotty Cameron putter. So, when his father, Jason Rivera, brought the flat blade into the hospital room, Priest started singing like a birdie.

“Despite being tied up to everything, Priest would try two or three putts into a glass and then go lay back down,” Gina said. “That putting gave him something to live for.”

It also planted a seed for Priest Rivera to extend a hand.

Fast forward to this summer.

Rivera, 16, was instrumental in raising money for a putting green that was installed last month for those brave patients at the UCSD Bannister Family House, a living facility for those undergoing long-term care. It’s all part of the Priest James Foundation, which is led by the tenacious Carlsbad teenager.

“I know how important golf was for me when I was in the hospital, as it gave me an extra boost of confidence,” said Rivera, who suffered burns to his face, neck, chest and ears. “It was tough the first couple of days in there because I had no clue what I would look like. I thought I would be disfigured for the rest of my life.”

Rivera, who studies online through the Classical Academy, rebounded like an ace. But he never forgot, or will forget, what putting meant to him as he stiff-armed pain and self-doubt.

That’s why his passion is not only for going low in golf but seeing how the game can turn frowns upside down.

“It feels pretty good, honestly, to help so many people,” Rivera said. “Just to put a smile on their face because they can putt, despite their injuries.”

Rivera, who participated in the recent US Amateur qualifying tournament, is on the move. He’s installing another putting green at a Los Angeles burn facility as the City of Angels borrows someone with wings from North County.

That’s Rivera and amen that he turned a dark moment into a way to spread love through golf.

“It was a pretty tragic event and he went through a lot of adversity,” Gina Rivera said. “He really wants to help others with their healing and it’s just so inspiring for all of us.”

Others are pitching in. Pro golfer Rickie Fowler sent an encouraging video, Scotty Cameron reached out with a care package and if we can extend a back-slap, we’re here for that.

That Priest Rivera is there for others is a summer blessing. For those tackling the road that he traveled, Rivera is there to lean on.

Knowing Rivera, he’ll likely have a putter for that, too.

Contact Jay Paris at [email protected] and follow him @jparis_sports