Learning the Game

Heidelberger: Amidst Pandemic, Junior Golf Separates Itself From Other Youth Sports

FORE LEFT! When the coronavirus pandemic blindsided the world this spring, the $19.2 billion youth sports industry felt the blow just like everyone else.

This article is courtesy of the NEPGA.

FORE LEFT! When the coronavirus pandemic blindsided the world this spring, the $19.2 billion youth sports industry felt the blow just like everyone else. Travel tournaments terminated, competitions canceled, and team practices postponed. Even as sports and leagues begin to reopen today, many are unrecognizable from their previous existence.

PHOTO: NEPGA

Golf, however, has bounced back into the short grass quicker than its proverbial playing partners; soccer, football and lacrosse, to name a few. Given golf’s expansive outdoor playing field and natural spacing, making the sport pandemic-proof, or at least pandemic-approved, required only a few tweaks. Bring your own water, touchless ball removers in holes, and air high-fives quickly became the new normal as golf not only reopened much earlier than other sports, but stormed back much stronger than many people anticipated.

NEW ENGLAND PGA JUNIOR TOUR

About 1,000 juniors tee it up each year on the New England PGA Junior Tour, with competitions ranging from 9-hole tournaments to two-day, 36-hole championships. Families flocked to the tour when tournament season began in mid-June with safety procedures in place, as the tour offers not only a competitive outlet for juniors, but a much-needed social outlet as well.

“Playing in the Junior Tour Tournaments is a fun way to meet new friends,” said NEPGA Junior Tour member Kyzar Joshi. “It’s also a great way to continue seeing the friends you made and to play new courses.”

Tyler Dearborn planned to split his summer between golf and lacrosse before the pandemic changed his plans. Now, he’s teeing it up on the Junior Tour as much as he possibly can.

“As a Club Lacrosse player, Tyler was originally scheduled to play in lacrosse tournaments with his team throughout New England, New York and New Jersey over the summer months,” said Andrew Dearborn, Tyler’s father. “However, the pandemic made that impossible. In 2019 Tyler played in three NEPGA Junior Tour events. We hoped to play in a few more this year, but now with a wide-open calendar he may end up playing 15 events or more this season.”

It didn’t take long for the extra reps to pay off for Tyler. On July 8 he won the boys 11-and-under division in the Junior Tour Tournament at Sandy Burr, a moment that he will not soon forget.

“The experience I will cherish the most was my first win in a stroke play event,” Tyler said of his triumph at Sandy Burr. “I started golfing there with the Jr. League a couple years ago and it was so fun to get my first win at a course where I already had so many great memories.”

Tyler isn’t the only one taking advantage of the opportunity to compete this summer. The NEPGA Junior Tour has been a hot ticket all year, with at least 90 percent of tournaments selling out in 2020. With the tour offering a fun, competitive environment for kids to get outside, exercise, socialize and access courses all over New England, it’s no surprise that families are seizing the opportunity.

“They say if you really want to get to know someone, play a round of golf with them,” Andrew Dearborn added. “The boys and girls he plays with encourage each other when things aren’t going so well, and cheer for each other when something great happens. What could be better for a young person’s confidence than that?”

YOUTH ON COURSE

How does golf for $5 sound? By offering members golf for $5 or less at over 1,200 participating facilities nationwide, including dozens within the New England PGA Section boundaries, Youth On Course is leveling the playing field when it comes to equal access to golf. The low annual membership fee, $15 in Massachusetts and $25 in New Hampshire, includes a complimentary GHIN Handicap and greens fees of no more than $5 for juniors ages 6-18 at 22 participating Massachusetts courses and eight more in New Hampshire.

Youth On Course is a national program administered locally by state golf associations. Mass Golf adopted the program in June of 2019 and has seen exponential growth this season. Last year, 400 Youth On Course members played about 1,000 rounds of golf in Massachusetts. So far in 2020 there are 1,400 members in Massachusetts with over 2,700 rounds played.

“It’s taken off, and as we all know, with no camps and no activities for kids right now, this is such a perfect opportunity to grow it and to get kids and families out there,” said Jesse Menacham, Executive Director of Mass Golf. “We hope that at some point we can double the number of facilities that participate and continue to grow participation.”

Participating facilities are reimbursed by the state golf association for the difference between the Youth On Course member rate and their standard junior rates. By attracting more juniors to their facility through Youth On Course, courses can help introduce the game to juniors who might not otherwise have the opportunity, and grow their junior and family programs as a whole at the same time.

“We work with each club and staff there to monitor on a monthly basis to make sure they’re getting reimbursed for the round subsidy and to help with marketing and promotion,” Menacham said. “Maybe they have junior program with a couple hundred kids, and this becomes an added value.”

Youth On Course was founded in 2006 out of the Northern California Golf Association, and has expanded to 38 regions and subsidized more than 975,000 rounds of golf. In addition to affordable golf, Youth On Course also offers internship, caddie, and scholarship programs that have yielded more than $250,000 in scholarships annually, 200 interns and 735 caddies.

“That’s really the key, get them engaged at a young age, follow their path and provide them with different opportunities, whether they want to play competitively, play socially, or play casually, whatever that may look like, but just keep that line of communication and engagement open,” Menacham said. “It’s a pretty simple operation and it’s a no-brainer. That’s really what it comes down to for kids and I personally wish I had it when I was a kid.”

PGA JUNIOR LEAGUE

PGA Junior League, inspired by the Little League World Series model, launched in 2011 with 170 participants and has grown astronomically ever since, with over 60,000 participants in all 50 states in 2019. Junior League helps introduce boys and girls to golf in a relaxed, team environment. Teams are formed at the facility level and compete against other facilities. Head-to-head team competition consists of four, 9-hole, 2-person scramble matches.

In a normal year, teams all around the country compete for the same goal, a spot in the National PGA Junior League Championship. Following the summer season, 10-player All-Star teams are formed for postseason play, which begins at the Section level, then moves to Regional, and National stages.

2020, however, is not a normal year. National postseason play is not realistic in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but that hasn’t slowed PGA Junior League down much at all. Local leagues are still happening all over the country. In a survey of 2019 and 2020 PGA Junior League parents, which collected more than 6,000 responses, 90 percent of parents said they feel comfortable to very comfortable returning to golf and PGA Junior League, and 80 percent said they plan to resume youth sports at the same or higher level than before the pandemic. The top three driving factors for families enrolling their child in PGA Junior League this season were learning and playing golf, the team sports experience, and safety.

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