Brand-new PGA Junior League program brings play and practice to The Ranch Course | SummitDaily.com

Brand-new PGA Junior League program brings play and practice to The Ranch Course

Sage was so, so close to a hole in one.

"Oh man, that's going in, that's going in!" yells his friend and golf partner, Zack, from the far side of the practice green at Keystone Golf Club. It's an impossibly blue June morning at The Ranch course — the first day of play at the U.S. Open in Oakmont, Pennsylvania — and the two are beginning a heated round of mini-golf, dressed in bright polos, clean golf hats and crisp shorts. They're 11 and 12 years old, and yet they already look like pro golfers in the making. Jim Furyk would be proud.

Sage leans with the ball as it wheels over the short grass, curving, curving, curving…and rolling right in the final foot to miss the hole.

"I thought that was going in, man!" says a third friend, Jennings, also dressed in a collared shirt of bright, striped neon. Sage sighs, shrugs his shoulders and walks to the hole, where he waits for the other two to hit before finishing the round.

"If they aren't having fun, they aren't learning," says coach and club pro Danny Weber, who led the threesome from hole to hole: one short, one long, one with a steep and wild break from left to right. "It's about finding ways to keep them engaged."

One hole down, two to go, and then it's on to the driving range.

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A new league in town

Since early June, the three local boys have joined about 25 other young golfers and a small crew of club pros for the PGA Junior League. It's brand-new program that riffs off the PGA's long-standing Junior Golf program, which reaches hundreds of thousands of youth golfers at hundreds of clubs across the nation, including Keystone and the Breckenridge Golf Club. Junior Golf gives kids a low-key introduction to the game, from club selection and scoring to course etiquette and exactly how to fix a divot, all while bringing more youngsters into the wide world of golf.

"At the conclusion of a round, the hats come off and the hands are extended," says Phil Tobias, the head PGA pro at Keystone who brought the league program to his club. "You'll even see this at the U.S. Open today: They respect each other for a good match. I saw a couple kids doing the same thing yesterday, saying, 'Hey, you had a great match today.' They're already learning that."

Aside from sportsmanship, the Junior League takes the Junior Golf format one step further with something every aspiring golfer wants: a true round of nine with good friends. The Keystone league played its first round on June 15, the day before the U.S. Open began, and Tobias was thrilled to see everything come together. The league takes the skills all young players need on the links — putting, chipping, driving off the tee, the whole golfing gamut — and weaves them into a 10-week program built around one-on-one coaching and those mini-tournaments, which use a scramble format to keep the energy level high.

"I saw so many great shots yesterday at our match and so many near misses," Tobias said. "You'd see a lengthy putt, and when they nearly get it — the look on their face as they're dancing around, waiting for it to go in — that's what I love. They're high-fiving each other, saying, 'Great shot.'"

Summit County's size makes a difference here: While some Junior Golf programs see 80 or 90 or even 100 students, the league is smaller and more intimate, giving golfers more time to work on individual skills. The Keystone group meets three times per week, with two practice sessions and one real-time match for the A, B and C teams.

"What really inspired me is not only the quality of instruction and the actual match time — the play time on the course to feel what competition is like — but also that they're part of a team," Tobias said. "They even have jerseys."

Golf for life

After finishing a final round of putting, the trio of boys takes their bags to the nearby driving range and sets up for chipping practice. The league started in late May, but after just three weeks the three older boys already had near-perfect form. Now, it was time to work on accuracy — one of a million skills any golfer needs and easily one of the hardest to fine-tune.

"That's in!" Sage yells this time, watching as Zack's beautiful chip shot soars high, and then drops almost directly on top of the pin. All three were aiming there, and Zack was the first to hit the target.

"Ok, let's try for that one," Weber says and points to a pin about 50 yards beyond the first target. One hole down, two to go. The boys line up golf balls and begin again.

PGA Junior League at Keystone

What: A 10-week program at Keystone Golf Club for youth golfers, ages 7-13, with a combination of practices two days per week and scramble matches once per week led by PGA pros

When: Late May to late July

Highlights: One-on-one coaching with club pros, two hours daily on Keystone practice facilities, up to five friendly home matches with teammates, August competitive tournament against leagues across Colorado and the nation

Cost: $225 per player

Registration for the league program is currently closed. To find out more, see the Keystone Golf Club website at http://www.keystoneresort.com/golf.