Golf on the N’side growing in popularity among junior players

After plateauing in recent years, junior golf on the Northside again appears to be on the upswing.

Local experts credit a number of factors, from the return of Tiger Woods to national prominence to the involvement of local golf pros, and the rise of new programs designed to get kids playing golf at early ages.

It doesn’t hurt that parents like the sport. Golf is not as violent as football, plus, moms and dads can play the game with their kids. Enthusiasts are also keenly aware that several junior golfers from the Northside have gone on to make names for themselves in college.

“We’re seeing a large group of parents now pushing their kids toward golf, to at least try it, especially from those parents who grew up playing the staple sports,” said Mississippi Golf Association (MGA) Executive Director Carter Page. “Most of them tell you they did that because it’s a game they can play their entire life. It’s not a collision sport.”

Longevity, as well as the ability to make lifelong friends, is one reason Mark Markow got his son John involved in the game. “Golf is one of only a few youth sports that, outside of becoming a professional, offers worthy opportunities beyond high school,” he said.

Markow also said it’s the only sport the two can play together.

Page also credits the world’s most well-known golfer’s recent successes to the sport’s new rise in popularity.

“I hate to put it on one person, but I think it’s the resurgence of Tiger Woods,” he said.

Woods returned to professional golf in late 2017 and became competitive again in 2018, winning his 80th tournament, tying for second in the PGA Championship and sixth in the Open Championship. This year, he won his fifth Masters Tournament to much fanfare.

Margo Coleman, executive director of First Tee of Central Mississippi said other professional players have also helped golf shed its image as a pastime for flabby, old men.

“Brooks Koepka, so many of the young players are fit and athletic,” she said. “It’s not an old man or old lady’s game.”

Coleman, who served as director of the state golf association for nearly two decades before joining First Tee, said local golf pros, as well as the emergence of programs designed to grow youth golf participation, have also played a role. 

“Usually, it’s a local golf pro that gets it started – gets juniors engaged by having camps and classes that introduce them to golf and keep competitive those that want to play in college,” she said.

The proof is in the pudding. This year, more than 100 children and teens participated in MGA’s Junior Amateur Championship. The event was held late July in Tunica.

“We were really excited about the field strength,” Page said.

Local training programs are also seeing strong numbers. Three camps held this summer at the Country Club of Jackson (CCJ) logged 130 participants. In the last two years, the camps had just over 100 participants each, said CCJ Director of Instruction Cory Vincent.

Meanwhile, CCJ’s new Operation 36 and Future Operation 36 programs, which target golfers between three and 15 years old, have had 60 participants.

“When I arrived in Jackson, the high school-aged golfers at CCJ were arguably the best at any club in the country. It was all the guys that are currently playing SEC golf,” he said. Those players included Wilson Furr and Simms Abney, now both at the University of Alabama, as well as Jack Gnam, now at the University of Mississippi.

“If there was any chance of us continuing to produce more golfers the key was to make sure we provided an opportunity to our youngest members,” he said. 

CCJ adopted its Future Operation 36 (ages 3-7) to teach young kids the basics, including proper posture and putting, in an age-appropriate manner.

The Operation 36 program (ages 7-15) is designed to help juniors shoot a 36 or lower while playing nine holes.

The latter “has been a real game changer in developing golfers,” he said.

Other local programs are also doing well.

U.S. Kids Golf, which was started locally by Chad Darby, head golf pro and director of instruction at Annandale Golf Club, has posted strong participation rates during its 2019 summer season. 

The program teaches juniors ages 14 and younger the rigors of tournament play through events at various golf clubs and country clubs in the area.

The most recent tournament event, held at the Country Club of Canton on July 8, drew 46 participants, while the same tournament last year drew 41, according to U.S. Kids’ website.

First Tee uses golf to teach children life lessons. programs are held in local schools as well as at out-of-school camps.

Thirty-five kids attended First Tee’s spring kick-off clinic, while 13 others signed up for the spring life skills program, Coleman told the Sun earlier this year. She hoped to increase those numbers at clinics in the summer and fall.

Another encouraging factor for local golf pros is the growing participation in junior girls activities.

“This summer, about 20 percent of our campers were girls,” Vincent said. “These numbers are significantly up from five years ago when I repeatedly was asked to have a girls-only camp because there weren’t that many girls enrolled.”

Coleman credits the increase to the rise of players like Lexi Thompson on the LPGA tour, as well as the success of local golfers like Blair Stockett, now at Mississippi State University.

Add to that the fact the women’s golf team at Ole Miss recently won their first Southeastern Conference title, and Coleman believe girls’ golf will continue to grow in popularity.

“It’s a goal these ladies can put on their lists,” she said. “It will definitely give confidence to little girls.”

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