Junior golf helps build sport
By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
On Monday mornings, you can't play the front nine at the Baker City Golf Course. Even if you managed to land a tee time, there'd be 31 eager foursomes ahead of you.
They're golfers sporting footwear from sneakers to flip-flops. Golfers with ultra-short, quick backswings but killer putting games.
Golfers who in some cases are only slightly taller than the sawed-off clubs they're wielding.
Monday is junior golf day at the golf course. For a $10 fee, about 125 junior golfers age 5 through 18 receive five weeks of instruction, culminating in a tournament July 12.
(Junior and senior high golfers get to play a second tournament July 19.)
The top finishers in each age group will be awarded trophies after the tournament. Each child will receive a sleeve of new balls and other golf goodies, courtesy of local merchants.
"I didn't learn the game until I was about 35 years old," said Sam Staal, one of the partners in 7-Iron Inc., the company that operates the golf course. "I wish I'd started this young."
Why does Staal offer up half the golf course for five summer Mondays?
"These kids are our up-and-coming golfers," he explains from the relative safety of the patio area behind the clubhouse. "When they're involved in golf, they're not out driving their parents nuts."
No time for "fore!"
Perhaps a dozen adults have volunteered their time to teach children a game they clearly love.
Volunteers like Larry Skeen.
A brave man indeed, Skeen this day stands directly in front of the 18th green and invites four beginning golfers ages 9 through 11 to chip five shots each right at him from point-blank range, about 25 yards away. Today's lesson is the first the young players have had honing their short games. Next week's new skill: blasting out of sand traps.
Rob Burgess, another volunteer instructor, says there's about a three-to-one ratio between what the instructor says and "what will stick in their minds."
"There's just a lot of stuff for the beginning golfer to learn," he said. "They can't pick it all up in the first or second day."
For this day, Skeen's offering the new golfers the basics: grip (the baseball variety is OK at this age, he says), stance (feet perpendicular to the target, spread comfortably apart) and swing ("Not too hard! Make it roll up to the flag," he advises the youngsters.)
"This is where the girls beat the boys every time," he tells the four female chippers in his group. "From here on in is your territory."
The girls nod and smile.
It's clear Skeen has also done his job in the golf etiquette department, too. After a few errant shots find their way into a greenside sand trap, one of the girls grabs a rake and smooths the sand for the next group.
After the girls have had a few whacks at the flagstick, Skeen turns students loose to play a couple holes before the lesson is over.
"It's a real mixed bag," Skeen says during a break. "Most of these kids have never picked up a golf club, but a few have had lessons. They're all real good kids, kids who are anxious to learn."
And happy when they do well. On the first day of lessons, 11-year-old Emilea Barfuss holed a chip shot. "This sounded like fun," she said, "and it has been."
Her playing partner, Kayla Dolby, 10, agrees, but says she's already had a taste of the vagaries of the game, too.
"It's hard and easy at the same time. It's frustrating when you hit the ball into a big dip (a divot)," she said. "You can't move the ball even if it's in a giant hole. I like hitting the ball off the tee a lot more. You can hit it a long way."
Kelli Wright has two children enrolled in lessons while a third works on his putting game on the practice green.
"It's been a fantastic self-esteem builder for my kids," she said. "They hit a good shot and the teacher calls 'em Ace.' That makes them light up with a really big smile."
On the other end of the age spectrum, Katie Roach, a junior at Baker High School and a member of the 2004 junior varsity golf squad, says she took up lessons just last year. She hopes lessons and practice will lower he scores next year perhaps even into the 90s.
"Even though I'm bad at it, it's a complete blast," she said of the summertime lesson package.
Like father, like daughter
Billy Cunningham, the course's greens superintendent and father of 9-year-old Jesse Cunningham, picks his daughter up in a golf cart following her lesson for at least two reasons: to chart her progress, and to get some more work done.
"She's the potential future greens superintendent of the Baker City Golf Course," he says with a smile.
"What better opportunity is there in Baker City," he continues, "than to give a young kid the tools they need to go out and play an 18-hole golf course? That's a lot of freedom to give a child and it sure is entertaining for them.
"Our goal is to make this the best municipal golf course in the country," he says, "and you can't do that without junior golfers."