PGA Junior League gives Treasure Valley youths opportunity to play and learn

ccripe@idahostatesman.comJuly 10, 2014 

EAGLE - Colby Ludwig, a 12-year-old from Meridian, never will forget his first PGA Junior League match.

It was June 27 at BanBury Golf Club.

It was his first competitive round of golf.

And on the third hole, his 47-yard tee shot with a pitching wedge turned into every golfer's dream.

"I thought (the ball) stopped and I looked away and everyone was screaming, 'You made it! You made it!' " Ludwig said. "I'm like, 'No way.' But then I noticed it wasn't there."

It was an ace, for the BanBury Aces, one of five Treasure Valley teams participating in the PGA of America's latest push to support junior golf.

The players compete in a team scramble format, wear jerseys and follow a watered-down rulebook that allows them to take practice swings in bunkers and treat out of bounds like water hazards.

"It's golf Little League," said Jim Brown, the former director of golf for Nampa's two municipal courses, Centennial and Ridgecrest. "The kids are excited. We had a kid who put his shirt on at 12 o'clock. The match wasn't till 5."

The PGA Junior League began as a pilot program in 2011 in four markets. It grew to nearly 2,000 participants in 2012, nearly 9,000 in 2013 and a projected 18,000 in '14.

This is the first year for Idaho. BanBury has three teams, Ridgecrest and Centennial combined for one, and River Birch in Star has one.

Brown expects the concept to "blow up" in the Valley as word spreads. He predicted the number of teams will double for next season.

"It reminds me of the Ryder Cup," Ludwig said, "because they have teams there and teammates can help you and support you."

Details of the format:

• Most players are 9 to 13 years old. Players as young as 7 can be approved.

• Each team has 12 players. They are split into four three-person teams for each dual. Two of those players compete on each hole with the third providing support, so each kid plays six holes (or more if the team is shorthanded). The nine-hole matches are split into three "flags" - the threesome that wins the most holes in each three-hole segment gets a point for the team and a flag sticker. The stickers go on the players' Junior League bag tags, like helmet stickers in football.

• The format is a two-person scramble from the junior tees - roughly 250 yards on a par-5, 150-220 yards on a par-4 and 50-100 yards on a par-3. (In a scramble, both players attempt each shot and they choose the best one.)

• The team with the most flags wins the dual - the Ridgecrest Launchers, for example, beat the Aces 8-4 despite Ludwig's ace - and the team with the most flags during the season wins the league. The teams will play four matches each this season, on Friday and Saturday evenings.

• The Treasure Valley likely will send an all-star team to a sectional event in late July to face golfers from Billings, Mont. The winner advances to regionals. The season ends with a national championship in Atlanta - golf's version of the Little League World Series.

The format places a heavy emphasis on team - a rarity in golf, where even high school and college players compete as individuals.

"They're trying to take the individual part out of golf," BanBury head pro Ben Bryson said. "There's less pressure. The first week they were nervous. Now they understand the scramble idea of it. If they hit a bad shot, it doesn't matter because they have a partner there to back them up. And it's match play. They don't have the stress of having to post a score on the hole.

"It's less stress, more team."

The skill level varies widely. Some of the older kids can drive the ball near the green on the par-4s and shoot in the 30s for nine holes. Some of the younger kids are still trying to eliminate the dreaded whiff from their games.

Usually, the best players are paired with less experienced ones.

"If you're older, you can get to know the little kids and teach them what to do in golf," said Max Villarreal, a 12-year-old who lives in Meridian and plays for Ridgecrest.

Villarreal sank a 30-foot putt from the fringe on the ninth hole to win the final flag in his match against the Aces. The format gave him the freedom to "go for it all" on the downhill putt.

The ball crashed into the pin and dropped in the hole. Villarreal pumped his left fist against his chest.

"I love seeing these kids fist-pump over a long putt for par or birdie or whatever it is and giving their teammates high-fives," Bryson said. "You don't see that in golf very often."

The matches draw a gallery of golf pros, family members and friends who cheer every shot. Other golfers are starting to take note, too.

Lucas Clapp, 13, of Caldwell wore his Launchers jersey during a casual round at Centennial. A driver shouted at him on the tee.

"Hit it good, No. 24," the man said.

"That's the thing that makes it so neat," said Richard Smith, Clapp's grandfather. "The teams."

The hope is that more courses in the Valley and around the state will see the success of this year's Junior League and give it a larger presence next year.

Costs this year ranged from $100 per player at Ridgecrest to $200 at BanBury. The cost covers the jersey, some balls, three or four practices and four matches. The coaches are the pros and assistants at the golf courses.

Bryson wasn't sure what to expect - especially after the practices.

"At that age, the attention span isn't what you'd like," he said. "They're kind of goofing off, so we were a little worried.

"Once the bell rung, that first match, these kids were serious. The jerseys were on. They were quiet. They don't mess around at all. These kids are serious. … It's fun to watch."

Chadd Cripe: 377-6398, Twitter: @IDS_BroncoBeat

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service