The PGA’s answer to Little League Baseball and Pop Warner football may or may not produce the next Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson.
But the real goal is to keep the sport wildly popular with weekend golfers for decades to come.
After two weeks of ill-timed rain the area PGA Junior League Golf teed off June 17 at River Ridge Golf Club, and the kids took advantage of a sunny afternoon to have a lot of fun on the links.
River Ridge was the winner, 7 1/2 to 4 1/2, over Pine Hollow Magic. But the most important thing was that they finally got to play.
Teams are made up of players from 9 to 13 years old, and the matches are eight-on-eight with four pairs from each side competing in a “scramble” format. In the scramble style, each player hits a tee shot before the pairs select the best lie and then each hits from that spot, pressing toward the hole until the first team drops a putt.
Participants tee off from the ladies’ tees, and pick up when the next shot would be for triple bogey.
“It mimics Little League Baseball a little bit,” said local commissioner and Pine Hollow coach Johnny Scott. “They can sub in and out after three holes. And there’s an instant reward - after three holes the winner gets a flag sticker to go on a bag tag.
“It’s tailored toward having advanced golfers teach beginners. That’s a role of the program. We put our ‘anchors’ with smaller kids who learn from them. For $170 there is a jersey, bag tag, balls with matches and PGA instruction.”
Teams wear brightly-colored numbered shirts, with River Ridge in orange and Pine Hollow Magic in red. Those are two of the four teams in their “pod” – of 13 Raleigh-area teams – with the others being the Pine Hollow Eagles and Wil-Mar.
The Pine Hollow teams have 13 members apiece. Pine Hollow and Heritage from Wake Forest were the area’s only two entries last year.
“The (PGA Junior) program started last April,” explained Scott, a Clayton High alumnus who played college golf at Mount Olive and then UNC Wilmington and has been the club pro for 20 years. “They picked Raleigh at the last minute as a pilot program, and the coordinator wanted to know if I wanted to get involved. I went to the website and liked the concept. It socializes the juniors more than individual golf. People will play scramble and superball in corporate tournaments.
“The concept is to have fun and learn to play in a relaxed setting. It’s an avenue to get into golf that’s a little easier than individual stroke play, which can be intimidating for a lot of people. Sometimes you have one kid who can drive the ball well and the other can putt or chip well.”
Assistant pro John Partin coaches the River Ridge team.
“I hope the kids just get some experience and have fun,” said the Cary native, who said he got into the career late, in his 20s. “We’re just trying to grow the game. We’ve got A through D players. Some of them are brand new and they’re doing this for the first time.
“(Head pro Tim Cockrell) has had a few practices for them. I want them to like the game, but I want to teach them how to keep moving. One of ours went down into the fairway and I was watching from above. He swung three times and then three more. I said ‘We’re going to do three strikes, you’re out, and then move on,’ and he said, ‘Thank you!’ ”
Brady Hooks, son of the club’s general manager Craig Hooks, is River Ridge’s top player.
“We shot around 2-over, but we didn’t make a birdie when we needed it,” said the rising seventh-grader at Riverwood Middle. “I’ve been playing since I was about four years old, but this was my first match in this league. We’re learning a little about teamwork.”
Noah Credle, who will be at Clayton High in the fall, and Cole Sutton, headed to Corinth Holders, were among the Magic’s leaders.
“I think we were pretty good,” Credle said. “The most important thing is improving your skills and having fun.”
Added Sutton, “It’s been improving my game. I played last fall and learned how to swing and putt better.”
The only female competitor was 8-year-old Madeline Edge, who just finished second grade at Riverwood Elementary.
“I went to a golf camp and liked it,” she said with a big smile. “I also dance, play soccer and swim. I just want to get to be good enough to beat my brothers (David and Michael).”
Ten players from the dozen teams in the city championships will make up an all-star team to travel to the regional and possibly world championships, Scott explained.
The Southeast pod includes the Pine Hollow Eagles, the Pine Hollow Magic, Wil-Mar Golf Club and River Ridge Golf Club. The Northern pod is comprised of two teams from Heritage Golf Club and teams from Wakefield Plantation and Heddingham Golf Club. The Western pod includes Lonnie Poole Golf Course, Bentwinds Country Club, Keith Hills Country Club and MacGregor Downs Country Club.
Christopher Barber, Drew Garver, Jacob Kallam, Noah Kallam and Coltin Scott all played for the all-star team in the regional tournament at TPC Sugarloaf in Atlanta last year and are involved in the league again this season.