Girls-only events thrive in junior landscape

Girls Rankings »

#NameYearStateRating
1Andrea Lee2016CA69.34
2Nicole Morales2014NY69.75
3Bethany Wu2015CA69.79
4Megan Khang2015MA69.94
5Lakareber Abe2014TX70.19

In the past 11 years, two junior golf events have emerged in the South that draw fields ranging from the country’s best to the country’s newest junior golfers. At their core, the tournaments revolve around growing the game among the country’s next generation. But the most distinctive characteristic of these events? Well, that can be found in the fine print, which reads like a backyard treehouse: No boys allowed.

The National Junior Girls Invitational, to be played for the fourth time March 19-21, addresses the shortage of junior girls playing the game. John Reger, the president of the North Florida PGA, said it’s a nation-wide trend.

“There’s a huge deficit of junior girls playing golf, even though there’s all these tournaments and all these opportunities, there’s not enough junior girls you see at the club level,” Reger said.

The National Junior Girls, played at the Country Club of Ocala in Ocala, Fla., has a different dynamic than most tournaments. It’s competitive – proved last year when Yueer Cindy Feng, Golfweek’s 14th-ranked junior, beat Brogan McKinnon on the second extra hole – but it also offers a non-threatening environment for girls who are just getting their feet wet when it comes to tournament play. The range of experience, from ranked players to beginners, is one of the most unique aspects of the event. As tournament director April Powers notes, it’s important for the players with experience to remember where they started.

Feng wasn’t paired with a beginning golfer at last year’s event, but remembers the weekend as being much more centered around the women’s game than many other junior competitions. Part of that has to do with the absence of a boys’ field, but the National Junior Girls also features a speaker each year that can serve as a role model in women’s golf.

“With the all girls . . . you’re really very focused with the tournament,” Feng said.

Powers, a teaching professional at Haile Plantation Golf and Country Club in Gainesville, Fla., has a long history with golf that includes a year of college golf at Texas, the Duramed Futures Tour and LPGA tour qualifying. Creating the tournament was a way for her to give back to the game – something she hopes this next generation of players will also do someday as she and other tournament volunteers instill in them an appreciation for golf. Proceeds from the tournament benefit a local charity.

“I just found that the game has given me so many opportunities, meeting people, the whole environment, and I have a daughter who was playing college golf and I’d just seen it change so I really wanted to come up and give something back to the game of golf from myself,” she said.

As the National Junior Girls grows the game from Ocala, another effort is being made in the Lone Star state at the Kathy Whitworth Invitational (March 15-17), which focuses more on bringing together the country’s top junior girls.

The event started 11 years ago, when about 40 girls from all over Texas began coming together every spring at Mira Vista Golf Club in Fort Worth. The tournament – dubbed the Cowtown Classic during its first few years of existence – was the creation of Laura Bley and Phyllis Kwedar, two women whose daughters played on the junior golf circuit. After noticing that the boys’ fields at most events tended to be larger and on a different level than the girls’ fields, the two approached Lindy Miller, Mira Vista’s head professional at the time, with the idea to start a high-level girls tournament at the club. With the help of Miller, Mira Vista and several volunteers, the field size has grown to 72 players, and many more than that turn in applications each year hoping for a spot in the prestigious event.

The most notable change to the Cowtown Classic since its inception in 1999 is the name change, and LPGA Hall of Famer Whitworth has done far more than just lend her name to the event. Whitworth is involved in everything from field selection to charity work to speaking with the players at a banquet held during tournament week.

Bley, who has since stepped aside as the main chairwoman but remains active with the event, said Whitworth’s involvement has catapulted the tournament to a world-recognized event. LPGA standouts Christina Kim, Paula Creamer, Brittany Lang and Jane Park are among the past champions. The field is prestigious, but Bley also notes that it’s a good place to give a player a shot where she might not otherwise get one.

“The nicest part is just the melding of the history of the LPGA and Kathy,” Bley said. “It’s just nice to see them build a connection there that more girls can appreciate the tradition. It gives you just a different dimension of golf.”

In addition to the competition element of the Kathy Whitworth, the tournament also leaves a large charitable footprint. All proceeds benefit the Boys and Girls Clubs of Fort Worth, and the tournament draws on volunteers from the Clubs’ women’s auxiliary. Whitworth puts on a junior clinic for the boys and girls prior to the tournament, and is simply “tickled” to be a part of it all.

Whitworth also plays an essential role in narrowing the entrant list after studying applicants’ ranking, handicap and tournament experience to create the strongest field.

“It’s pretty complicated but the players are all aware of that and it doesn’t keep them from trying again,” Whitworth said. “We have some that have tried several times and were able to qualify.”

Whitworth can familiarize herself with the players that way, and often sees the players down the road at other events. Players also won’t soon forget meeting her and listening to her dispense words of wisdom at the tournament banquet, even though Whitworth insists she isn’t a speech-giver and likes to “have fun with it, it’s not a real heavy thing.”

Erynne Lee, who won the last two events (and both times in a playoff), is an example. 

“I actually got to meet Kathy Whitworth, which was really amazing,” said Lee, who will not be able to attempt a second title defense this year because she’s scheduled to take the SAT that weekend. “It was an honor, especially for all the other girls as well, hearing her talk and giving us advice.”

The generation gap has officially been bridged in the golf world.

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