PGA Junior League Golf aims to attract youth

Captain Andy Nisbet (center) and coach Tony Guerrero rally the California team.

Captain Andy Nisbet (center) and coach Tony Guerrero rally the California team.

Editor's note: This story originally appeared in the Sept. 28 issue of Golfweek

As a club manager for nearly 40 years, Dennis Johnsen has witnessed his share of grow-the-game initiatives. More often than not, he says, their hype outweighs their results.

So when he heard of PGA Junior League Golf, a new team format designed to recruit youth to the game, Johnsen had serious misgivings. When told the concept featured team jerseys like Little League Baseball uniforms, allowed for player substitutions and involved scoring by “capturing flags,” Johnsen dismissed the idea as looney, if not making a mockery of his beloved game.

But Johnsen did an about-face this summer after hosting his inaugural team at Pine Meadow Golf Club, just northwest of Chicago, where he doubles as head professional.

With parents raving about Junior League Golf’s emphasis on camaraderie and fun – unlike the pressure-cooker of typical junior tournaments – and team members clamoring to play more, Johnsen made this pronouncement: “When it comes to growing the game, there’s not another program that’s even close.”

The PGA of America expects Junior League Golf to be its answer to Little League Baseball, youth soccer and lacrosse leagues that monopolize playing fields across the country. The association has partnered with LEJ Sports, the youth-program development company based in Norcross, Ga., that created the golf format, to roll out the initiative nationwide. LEJ’s history lends promise to the PGA’s new push: LEJ has been commissioned by major pro sports leagues, including the NBA and Major League Baseball, to devise similar outreach efforts. Most notably, it created and still manages MLB’s “Pitch, Hit and Run” skills competitions that engage 1 million participants annually.

“The heart and soul of this will be PGA pros and parents, but you need an organization that can deliver all the assets,” says Darrell Crall, the PGA’s managing director of strategic development. Just like Little League Baseball, the PGA envisions Junior League Golf to be contested in city championships, with winners advancing to regionals and ultimately a national championship. In fact, more than 1,800 children competed on 120-plus teams in Junior League Golf regular-season play earlier this year; six squads traveled Sept. 14-16 to Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Ill., for an inaugural national championship, won by a team from California.

The genesis of the team format began with an effort not to compete with traditional junior events, but to broaden their reach.

“Golf and tennis operate on a similar elite pipeline track,” says Bob Longmire, LEJ’s managing partner. “You play stroke play, you get ranked. It’s all solo.” But for youngsters who don’t thrive in such a system, it’s potentially an early – and permanent – exit from the game.

Says Longmire: “A kid takes an 11 on a hole, and he’s done. He goes back to skateboarding.”

To rid the sport of such a crucible, at least at the tender ages of 7-13, Junior League Golf assembles teams of 12 players, and they compete against other squads, using a two-player scramble format. A typical contest or “game” features four matches, with each two-player team playing nine holes in three separate segments.

When a team wins two of three holes in any segment, its players “capture a flag” and actually receive a flag sticker to be placed on a bag tag, akin to the way football players earn helmet stickers for making exceptional plays. Capturing a flag earns a point; holes that are halved yield no flag, but win a half-point. The squad with the most cumulative points wins the game.

After any three holes, a team captain – usually a club pro or parent volunteer – may substitute a player, giving everyone a chance to participate.

By playing a scramble format, Longmire says, pressure is virtually eliminated and opportunities for success multiply.

“The player who never dreamed of making birdies now can, and he’s usually the one putting first,” he says. “He may not have hit the shot to get there, but all he remembers is sinking the putt.”

Jerseys and stickers may seem inconsequential to some, but parents who’ve enrolled their children in other team sports should know their intrinsic value.

“I’ve had some of my kids wear their uniforms all day,” Johnsen says. “And trust me, the stickers are a big deal. They’re always looking at each other’s bag tag. It’s a real badge of honor.”

What excites Johnsen, other than having happy customers, is that Junior League Golf is a viable business and not just another long-term investment in the game with an uncertain return.

Though prices may vary slightly based on market, Junior League Golf’s baseline fee is $150 per junior. According to Johnsen, half of that sum goes to LEJ for operational and fulfillment costs, and the balance is kept by the club. At Pine Meadow, he used the revenue to pay his instructors to teach junior clinics. Such sessions, in turn, spawned interest for additional private lessons among the juniors as well as their parents.

Next year, Johnsen hopes to field four teams.

“This,” he says, “is building my business.”

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