For you 30-something and older golfers out there, think back to your childhood golf experience. Did you even have one? Were you taught by one of your parents or were you just dropped off at the course to figure out the game on your own? Many of us can probably tell a different tale of a non-existent or loose way of being brought up in the game. But chances are none of us had an experience as elevated as the youth of today.
“Kids golf was almost discouraged,” recalled Baileys Harbor native Randy Meyer who grew up playing Maxwelton Braes. “There wasn’t a junior program at [Peninsula State Park Golf Course] at the time. I think my dad went to the Park to see if I could get a reduced rate,” recalls Meyer, who is now the head golf professional at Idlewild Golf Course in Sturgeon Bay.
Golf was a different game back then. It was an adult game. In the summertime, kids were taking swim lessons, playing Little League baseball, or participating in team sports camps. Most were not taking golf lessons, let alone getting out on the course and playing the game.
But times have changed. And never before has the game of golf become as accessible as it is today for our younger generation – thanks in large part to the PGA’s concerted efforts on a national level for shattering golf’s image as an elite sport reserved only for the wealthy and privileged adult. Their heavily marketed “Play Golf America!” campaign has been their latest battle cry in breaking down perceptions and recruiting fresh faces.
An array of PGA-sponsored programs have emerged in the last decade, all geared toward making golf fun, affordable, and accessible for kids. One of the more well known is the The First Tee, a developmental program dedicated to providing young people of all backgrounds the opportunity to build character through the game of golf.
The Littlest Golfer puts golf clubs in the hands of kids who can barely walk, targeting ages 3 through 12 and rallying, “Start Younger, Play Longer!” Playing with cut-off adult clubs is a thing of the past thanks to programs like U.S. Kids’s Golf, providing quality, age-appropriate equipment, as well as instruction and competition. Some area pro shops are U.S. Kid’s Golf dealers, offering a varied selection of kid-specific equipment.
Just recently, Alexis Thompson, a 12-year-old girl from Florida became the youngest female to qualify for the U.S. Open. On the men’s tour, a slew of young guns in their early 20s have burst onto the scene, with Ireland’s Rory McIlroy and American Anthony Kim topping the list. These incredibly young superstars playing at the world’s highest level is proof that kids are picking up clubs at a younger age, and that a new generation of phenomenal, young golfers has arrived.
It is an exciting time for kids playing the game of golf, not just on the national level, but on the local level as well. Door County has mirrored this new embracement of the next generation. “We need to spark interest and excitement for kids and their families,” cited Jason Daubner, head professional at Peninsula State Park Golf Course. “Let’s face it, they are our future.”
Golf courses now offer highly demanded, affordable and structured golf programs for boys and girls of all ages and skill levels. Six years ago, Meyer took over and built on the existing junior program at Idlewild. “I wanted to make it better for kids than when I grew up,” said Meyer of his motivation for running his popular, instructional camps.
“Randy is one of those soft-spoken, under-the-radar guys, but he is a real supporter of junior golf,” said Sturgeon Bay High School golf coach Tony Smith. “If a kid’s parents can’t afford equipment or something, I send them to Randy and he finds ways to help them out.”
Devoting his life to kids as a Sturgeon Bay elementary teacher, Smith himself has been a strong supporter of junior golf in Door County for decades. He started the Sturgeon Bay golf team in 1987 and continues to coach as well as volunteer at Meyer’s summer junior programs.
While private lessons for adults can run upwards of $30 to $40 per hour, kids between 6 and 17 can enjoy a summer-long program at Idlewild for just $125 to $150. Preceding each weekly lesson, all kids get out on the course and play either 3 or 9 holes depending on their level. “It’s important to get the kids out there playing,” advised Meyer. “One of the biggest mistakes is to over-teach. Let them go play and have fun.”
Throughout the duration of the camp, on non-lesson days, kids accompanied by an adult can enjoy a 9-hole round on the course for a mere $5. Last year, the program introduced a free golf fitness test led by Aurora Medical Center, testing for flexibility and mobility.
Meyer’s program was recently awarded a grant by “Sticks For Kids” in which 10 sets of kid’s clubs are available free of charge for any youth golfers playing at Idlewild. They also were recently awarded a Family Course Grant through the PGA and the National Recreation and Park Association in which they will receive support for family-friendly outings at the course.
Cherry Hills Golf Course in Sturgeon Bay has emulated a similar program as that of Idlewild’s, offering a summer-long, weekly instructional session followed by play on the course. At the direction of head pro Mike Pfannenstiel and his assistants, boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 17 can enjoy a summer’s worth of instructional golf at the low rate of $75 to $80.
Peninsula State Park Golf Course has had a long-standing, youth golf program that always seems to fill its 30-kid capacity quickly. As a non-profit, Peninsula has been able to offer the two summer sessions for free to all participants. Funding for this program comes partially from the Peninsula Golf Association’s member dues and partially from an endowment that was set up by the family of the beloved Peninsula golfer, the late Carolyn Bell of Gills Rock.
Different than Idlewild, Peninsula offers two four-day sessions, one in June and one in July, with a day of play and competition on the final day. “We teach all aspects of the game, from rules and etiquette to safety and mechanics,” stated Paul Schloemich who has run the camps for the past seven years along with wife and former co-director of Peninsula, Mynn Lanphier.
“Golf is a great tool to teach so many of those lifelong skills to kids…patience, honesty, perseverance, manners, self-reliance,” commented Lanphier. As retired and lifelong teachers from the Milwaukee area, running the summer kids program seemed like a natural fit for Schloemich and Lanphier. “It was great to be working with kids again,” stated Lanphier, “and we had so many wonderful volunteers helping us.”
Peninsula’s current head pro, Daubner, was a product of the junior golf program himself, under the tutelage of former pro Sylvia Ferdon. “It’s great to give back to the same program that I benefitted from as a kid,” said Daubner.
“Jason is a great example of how this junior program has come full circle,” added Smith. “If he didn’t get involved at a young age, he may never have pursued a career in golf.”
Both Daubner and Meyer serve on the board of the Door County Golf Association (DCGA), whose mission in part is to promote youth golf in Door County. In doing so, the DCGA each year donates seed money to the five Door County high school golf programs. They also host the annual “Door County Cup” where all high school teams compete in a tournament at Horseshoe Bay Golf Club, a private golf course where many of the kids have never before set foot. In addition, each year, the organization awards thousands of dollars in scholarship money to select Door County high school golfer graduates.
While adult seasonal passes at the local golf courses average approximately $1,000, some of the same courses offer a junior seasonal rate as low as $200 to $300. “More kids are playing golf these days,” conjectured Daubner. “It has become more affordable and with the addition of executive courses like Stonehedge, it’s not as intimidating for kids.”
Door County is definitely doing its part in making the game of golf fun, affordable and accessible for our youth, and in doing so has opened the door for so many young adults, perhaps in ways unexpected. The county’s junior program has been an excellent building block throughout the years for the strong county high school golf teams.
Many of those same kids have gone on to notable college golf careers. Also, the county has churned out an impressive amount of those in the golf profession. “Golf opens up a whole world to kids…social and business connections that they will have the rest of their lives,” cited Smith.
Door County’s investment in junior golf has reaped its rewards. Thanks is due to the many local pros and volunteers who over the years have realized that golf is more than just a sport, it is a game of a lifetime.