Growing Up Golf

I can always tell when I am playing golf with someone who started playing early in life. There is a degree of confidence present in the way they choose clubs, address the ball and shrug off bad shots that suggests a long relationship with the game. They are usually in decent physical shape, don’t drink on the course, have good manners and seem well organized. I didn’t start playing until my mid-twenties.

This past Saturday, I arrived for a tee time at Raspberry Falls in Loudoun, and there were 320 kids there for the skills assessment day of the Loudoun Junior Golf Association. I was absolutely floored. LJGA President Charlie Hoffman spent an hour educating me about the league and turning my astonishment into admiration. Born out of Leesburg Parks and Recreation in 2004, the league has since become its own 501(c)3 and grown to include 12 golf courses, both private and public, and now has corporate sponsors like ExxonMobil and Jersey Mikes.

The price for annual membership is $275. This includes an assessment, four lessons (chipping, putting, woods and irons), score keeping and etiquette instruction and participation in six tournaments. There are five divisions to accommodate every skill level and age. Satisfying their annual volunteer requirement, PGA pros happily lend their time to these clinics, ensuring top-notch instruction. All positions are volunteer-based, and most, if not all, of the volunteers have or have had children in the league. Raspberry Golf Academy and Goose Creek paid for the uniforms this year. This is not the Bad News Bears sponsored by Chico’s Bail Bonds. This is a well thought out, responsibly grown and accessible golf program for kids, one which is encouraging its footprint to be copied.

Spending a day talking to golf professionals in Fairfax County and finally back to Washington, D.C., to see what junior golf programs were available presented a different story from Loudoun. Junior golf outside of private clubs in Fairfax County also began at Parks and Recreation, and for the most part, still is where the majority of junior leagues are found. Five county-owned courses in Fairfax County have been competing in league play for a couple of years now, according to Jeff Winkle, General Manager of Oak Marr Golf Complex. While Fairfax County has some good courses, most of the tournaments and clinics for juniors are at par 3 courses. Loudoun kids are playing courses like Lansdowne Resort, River Creek and Raspberry Falls.

Washington, D.C., junior golfers have even less of a chance to experience different types of courses. There are some great programs like the First Tee of Greater Washington and Paul Berry’s Get Hooked on Golf programs. If you are a child in D.C. public schools and want to take the six-week Get Hooked on Golf Clinic, it will be provided at no cost, including transportation. Once you finish the clinic, the organization will pay for your rounds at East Potomac Golf Course. This is made possible in conjunction with D.C. Friends of Ireland and the PGA of America, which partners with the program.

These programs are a wonderful resource, but the three courses in D.C. are extremely crowded, and variety is limited. Terry McFarland, General Manager of Rock Creek Golf Course, worked with the PGA of America to form leagues last year, but there were not enough participants at the three courses to sustain a program. He said he would love to see a situation where the course would be active with golf leagues, but it would need to make good business sense for the three D.C. courses.

The difference between these programs and Loudoun is that the parents and volunteers are the ones running the leagues. If parents ran the leagues in D.C. and Fairfax County, as they seem to do in so many other sports, they could compete with other areas and visit their courses. LJGA’s Hoffman says he would love to be able to compete with other areas and work with other organizations and would even help set them up. The PGA of America says the same thing.

“I will come talk to anyone, anywhere, that wants to start a golf league for kids,” says Bob Heintz, Junior Golf Director for the Mid-Atlantic section of the PGA of America. Heintz says that he has gone to talk to Loudoun over the years and is glad to see them doing well. “Leagues do not even have to be PGA members to have PGA support,” he says.

It seems that there is room here for all sides of the equation to benefit. League play, organized by D.C. and Fairfax Volunteers, however large, could work with other leagues like Loudoun to allow their kids access to more courses in the area. Golf courses, county and non-county alike, can focus on providing the best facilities for play they can and be paid for it. Sponsors that are willing to help kids play golf can show support for these leagues and have tax benefits. Lastly, as a community, we can reap the benefits created from raising more children in the area that espouse the good qualities that the game of golf seems to install in them.

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