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This past weekend I had the pleasure of watching some of the finest junior golfers in the world come and play in the American Junior Golf Association Preseason Tournament at St. James Plantation. Ninety-six golfers between the ages of 12 and 17 played the 36-hole event at The Founders Club. Forty came from the Carolinas, but the rest came from all over the United States and abroad, some from as far away as Thailand, Ontario, Columbia (South America) and Singapore.
The AJGA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the development of junior golfers who want to earn college scholarships. It has a membership of more than 5,500 junior golfers from 49 states and more than 40 countries. Former AJGA members include Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Paula Creamer, Matt Kuchar and Morgan Pressel.
Those statistics are impressive, but the most impressive thing about these kids is the way they play golf. They are intense. There is not a lot of talking and joking; in fact, I’ve seen more smiles and laughs during the final holes of the U.S. Open than in AJGA events.
The kids are polite and shake hands at the end of the round with their fellow competitors. They rake traps, repair ball marks on the green and, of course, because they are juniors they carry their clubs. Some had pull carts. No one rode in carts, except when they were driven by St. James volunteers in areas where the walk is long and would slow down play.
The winner of the boys’ division was Nicolas Ross from Ontario. He carded a 75-73 (148) for his first AJGA victory. Last year he finished tied for 18th at St. James.
“I really felt comfortable with the course,” he said. “This winter I really focused on my game and that was the difference between this year and last. It feels good to get that first win out of the way and to look forward to my next event.”
Top finishers in the boys’ division were: Brian Bak from Nutley, New Jersey (150); Justin Arens from Columbus, Ohio (153); Nuthipong Bunmark from Bradenton, Fla. (153).
Seven juniors from the Carolinas finished in the top 20. The lowest score for a Carolina junior boy was a 79-75, shot by Jake McGlone of Charlotte.
In the girls’ division, Cynthia Diaz, a 14-year old from Bucaramanga, Columbia, shot 77-76 for a two-round total of 153 to win first place.
“This was a very hard course compared to where I play back home,” she said. “I’m not used to the wind and I usually play in hot weather, but my hard work is reflecting in this tournament.”
Daniela Marin, also from Bucaramanga, Columbia, and Madison Moosa, of Charlotte, tied for second with 158. Marianna Mia Zanghetti, of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla, posted a 160.
Seven girls from North and South Carolina were in the top 20 finishers.
The best part of watching these kids play is the amazing skill level they possess. I saw a kid hit a shot out of a greenside bunker so deep that a house would fit inside. He climbed into the bunker and after about a minute, there was a spray of sand, the top of his club and a golf ball rolled up to within 6 feet of the cup.
The girls all have gorgeous swings and hit the ball well past 200 yards. The boys? Well, if you didn’t bring your binoculars, you might not see the ball land. Most of them can reach the par-fives in two. By the way, the course was set at 6,492 for the boys and 5,681 for the girls.
The whole time I was there, I kept thinking that I might see these kids on TV in another few years, maybe in the Masters or the LPGA Championship.
I spoke with Brian Walker, the head golf professional at The Founders Club.
“We thoroughly enjoy having the tournament here,” he said. “The staff of the AJGA is very professional. We learn from them each year and use that knowledge in running events for our members here.”
St. James Plantation has a long history of supporting junior golf. The residents provide the largest number of volunteers from any community to The First Tee of Brunswick County. The Future Generations Tournament of The First Tee, the largest charity event in the region with 512 golfers, was held there last June and returns on June 2. In addition, the professional staff at St. James gives clinics and helps coach kids from The First Tee.
St. James also runs its own junior golf camps each year during July and August. Ryan O’Neill, helps with those junior opportunities.
“Our golf camps run for four weeks each summer,” he said. “We take about 12 kids in the morning and another 12 in the afternoon. Barry Walters and John Taylor, two of our golf professionals, also work with the kids.”
“We have a lot of fun because the kids learn so fast. We help shape their swings and as they grow and get stronger, we see the progress from year to year.”
Alan Deck is the general manager of St. James Plantation and he also is enthusiastic about junior golf.
“The clubs at St. James and the ownership are committed to grow the game through our junior golfers,” he said. “We need to teach the game to the next generation.
“Troon Golf, the management company at St. James, is very dedicated to junior golf. They have a program called Troon Family Golf, where juniors can play for free (with an adult) after 3 p.m. at any Troon facility. Plus, if a junior player does not have clubs, they can use a set of complimentary Callaway rental clubs when they play. We also have those clubs available for purchase and when they are ready for their own set, they can buy them directly from us.”
I spoke with Joan Madsen, the head of St. James volunteers for the AJGA. The tournament is now in its fourth year, and Joan has no problem getting volunteers to help.
“We had 55 volunteers this year,” she said. “Some worked a half day; others were here for the whole tournament, plus the practice round on Friday. Most of them have done it now for several years and they know the drill. Many of them came up to me at the end of the tournament and asked to be put on the list for next year.”
I often thought that with our climate, our abundance of golf courses and our cadres of enthusiastic volunteers, this area could someday be called “The Junior Golf Capital of the World.”
That dream is not so far-fetched.
Golf Gab groaner
More golf truisms: The man who takes up golf to get his mind off work soon takes up work to get his mind off golf. The less skilled a player is, the more likely he is to give you tips. The secret to good golf is to hit the ball hard, straight and not too often.
Elsa Bonstein is a golf columnist for The Beacon. Reach her at email@example.com. Follow her at facebook.com/elsa.bonstein.