Navigating Junior Golf
Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Junior Golf-- What an expansive subject! And what an impact (both negative and positive) that this part of my life had on me as a human being and athlete. I cried many tears and broke just as many smiles during that period of my life. And now, being removed from it for six years, I feel I have some perspective on this subject that could be useful to any person involved with junior golf-- a high school coach, a golf instructor, a parent or grandparent, or even the junior golfer themself. I hope to write a book one day on this subject, but for now let this small article suffice.
Before I delve into this topic, I’d like to say that I’m hoping this website will provide some sort of foundation for all people who want to take on the dubious task of mastering this game to the best of their abilities. In this complicated, frustrating (yet addicting) game, it can sometimes feel that your scoring average is as permanent as a birthmark, but I believe that our golf games are very malleable. If you love golf and would like to continue reading about the process, I hope you will take a minute to subscribe and spread the word of this site to the rest of your golfing family.
But back to the juniors. For this article, I am going to write to the junior golf parent, rather than the junior. I could write to the junior, but often it would be more useful for everyone involved if the parent is the first person to be aware of the things I’m about mention.
1. Product Warning!
It is rare for the goals of a child and his/her parent to match perfectly since parents have a lifetime’s worth of experience influencing their perspective, and, after all, a kid is just a kid. Luckily, I have a great relationship with my parents now, but we also dealt with the tension and stress associated with the Professional Junior Golf life. I have some friends who don’t talk to their parent(s) anymore because of their experiences in golf. What’s interesting is that the relationship does not really depend on the result since one of these friends is doing quite well on a major tour. This is something to always keep in mind.
If your mission is to teach your child that nobody is innately better than they are, and that hard work can manifest anything (something I believe because of my father guiding me through junior golf)-- I think golf is a wonderful medium that can help teach these lessons and much more. On the other hand, don’t forget that the path connecting a ten year old junior to the status on a major tour is a long one that will take ten to twenty years, hundreds of private lessons, countless weeks away from home, tens of thousands of dollars, and most importantly, your child at some point taking over as the driving force in the process.
2. Start early but slow.
I recommend introducing your child to golf early but very slowly. Buying a used starter set for your child’s age range can be bought on Ebay for next to nothing. Another option is buying a cheap set of clubs at Academy or some other sporting goods store. What you don’t want at this stage is to invest a lot of money in a sport your child might not like at all.
If you don’t play golf but feel it would be a good sport for your child to learn for their future, now is the time to also buy your cheap set. Going to the local municipal golf course with your child every Saturday for a bucket of golf balls or nine holes is a great, slow way to see if your kid has fun whacking that small, white ball around a field. If he/she does, great! On to step 3.
Personally, I started golf after receiving my first set of clubs from Santa at age four. They cost my parents only forty Australian dollars and I used them until I was seven.
3. Junior Camps / Clinics / Private Lessons
Junior camps are a great way for your junior to enjoy learning how to play golf with their peers. The social side of junior golf is something that cannot be ignored. Many of my best friends as a twenty-four year old were made as a ten year old at the golf course or at some tournament.
The only problem with junior camps is they are not always that focused (your kid might not learn as much as they would in private lessons). But hey, you get what you pay for, as the expression goes! Camps are a great way to make sure your kid actually likes the game of golf before making larger investments into this game.
Some junior camps can be really productive, however. Currently, the club I teach and work out of uses a junior program system called Operation 36 which has been amazing to utilize. It is essentially a structured junior program which has weekly clinics focused on teaching specific skills that build on top of one another as the curriculum unfolds week to week. Every two weeks, there is a “Match” in which all participants will play nine holes from a certain yardage with the goal of shooting 36 or better. All juniors start out from 25 yards on each hole (known as Level 1). Once they can do that, they move to 50 yards, then to 100, and so on. To read more about this program, you can click on the following link: https://operation36.golf/
As far as private lessons are concerned, they really depend on your current financial situation as they are very expensive ($60 - $250 per hour depending on the instructor). In my opinion, wait until you know your junior is in love with golf and has completed a few rounds with you before making that investment.
For me, my introduction to competitive junior golf was a Drive Chip and Putt commercial that I saw when I was seven. I asked my parents if I could do that, and next thing you know I’m a twenty-four year old aspiring tour professional with a website called Serious Golf Talk.
4a. Drive, Chip and Putt.
Drive, Chip and Putt is a competition series in which all participants are scored by a few drives, chips and putts, and are subsequently scored based on an objective conversion sheet they developed. The highest three scores move on from the local competition to the regional one. The same thing happens at the regional competition before moving on to the national competition which is currently being held at AUGUSTA NATIONAL! This is a great way to bond with your child as you both begin to develop practice plans to get ready for locals. To register for your local Drive, Chip and Putt competition, visit the following link: https://www.drivechipandputt.com/
4b. Local Tournaments
Once your child is able to drive, chip and putt at a reasonable level, it is now time to begin playing real tournaments where your junior will have to post a golf score by their name-- a thrilling thing to experience for the first time. Likely, your state will have a golf association with regional junior golf events for almost all ages seven and up. For Houston, we have the South Texas PGA (STPGA) which hosted events all over the region. For the little tykes, they had a local summer series called Little Linksters which were five to nine hole events from modified tees. As you got better, you were moved into more difficult divisions. The hardest division was the nine hole forward tee division.
If you are in South Texas, visit the following site to register for the Little Linksters events: https://www.stpgajuniorgolf.com/little-linksters
4c. Regional Tournaments
If your kid is doing well in these, there will likely be 18 hole events hosted year round by the same golf association which is bracketed by age range (approximately 8-11, 12-15 and 16-18). I began playing in these when I was nine, and played with some great players.
If you are in South Texas, visit the following site to register for STPGA’s regional events:
4d. State Tournaments
If your junior is excelling at the regional level (and still has fun, obviously), you guys can move on to a more difficult tournament series at the state level. For Texas we have the Texas Legends Golf Tour and the Texas Junior Golf Tour. This is when your junior will begin playing with some really exceptional kids. My first final round pairing in a Texas Legends event, I was eleven and was paired with Jordan Spieth and William Zalatoris.
If you are in Texas, visit the following site to register for Texas Legends’ state-wide events:
4e. National Events (12-15 year old bracket)
If your junior is winning on this level before the age of fourteen, they will be turning some club reps and college coaches’ heads. I got my first club sponsorship at twelve years old. I got free golf balls, shoes, hats and 20% off wholesale for equipment. At fourteen, I got my first “full deal” which was free everything (within reason) after providing a promise that all goods would not be sold or given away if I chose to not use them. Believe it or not, this is legal and does not violate any amateur rules. Most elite juniors heading into university are “sponsored” in this way.
After the state level, the next logical step is the American Junior Golf Association with alumni like Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Lexi Thompson, Scottie Scheffler, and pretty much every American (and many non-Americans) on the PGA Tour. The first stage is called the Junior All-Star tournament series. This is for 12-15 year olds. You can get exemptions and priority list points from your state junior golf events (aka: not everyone gets into these events). For more information, visit the following URL: https://www.ajga.org/tournaments/how-to-play
4f. National Events (12-18 year old bracket)
After you graduate from the Junior All Stars, you can play in the Open events (12-18) (some skip the Junior All-Star stage all together, actually). These also require exemptions or priority list points earned from various tournaments. The fields here tend to be more mature in their golf games than the Junior All Star Series.
If you play well in AJGA and other national and state events, you will get national ranking points. If you are ranked inside the top 75 in the country with the AJGA’s junior golf ranking system, you will get into what are known as Invitationals where you will be playing with many of the PGA TOUR’s next stars. To see the current standings of the AJGA ranking system, visit the following site: https://www.ajga.org/rankings/boys
Another option for national events would be the IJGT. This is also a great tour; however, the fields tend to be weaker than the AJGA on this tour, and is often used as a stepping stone similar to the state level tournaments I described earlier. If you are interested in the IGJT, visit the following site: http://www.ijgt.com/
4g. International Events
My first AJGA invitational was the Polo hosted at PGA National in 2010 when I was fifteen. In the field was Justin Thomas, Ollie Schniederjans and Patrick Rodgers. I made matchplay but lost to Tom Lovelady in the first round of matchplay. All four players I just mentioned are doing very well as touring professionals currently. Often times, these events will feature a couple international players in the field.
After the AJGA invitational level, your junior will likely have the choice of his/her universities. Another option is to turn professional immediately as some choose to do.
It should be noted that well before this point, your junior golfer will have taken over the reigns as the guiding force in their progression as an athlete and you (the parent) should be there for support.
5. How Does Recruiting Work?
This is another article coming soon. For now I will cover the basics.
I received my first letters of interest from universities in ninth grade. All of the schools I had ever dreamed of sent me this introductory letter saying they are interested in me as an athlete, and that NCAA rules prevented them from initiating any further communication. They all included a phone number which I could use to contact the head coach and the assistant coach of a school.
Ninth Grade! This is why I tell juniors in middle school who are still not breaking 100 that the clock is ticking if they’re wanting a big scholarship to a Division 1 university like Texas A&M University, Oklahoma State or the University of Houston.
5b. Should I Contact a University for my Junior?
No. If anything, the junior golfer needs to be the one that contacts the universities. I would encourage juniors to reach out to as many universities as they are interested in during the summer that separates ninth and tenth grade, and ONLY if they are winning or placing at a state level with regular scores in the mid to low 70s and occasionally the high 60s. If a junior is not performing at this level during the summer between ninth and tenth grade, they should hold off on any emails or calls to universities until they are. Most juniors commit during their junior year of high school (eleventh grade) which means D1 rosters fill quickly.
Just remember, if your junior is not able to get to that level of performance in time to make the roster for their dream D1 university, it is okay! Zach Johnson played D3 golf for Drake University and now has a Green Jacket. There are countless paths to mastery-- D1 golf is not necessary. However, it does provide many opportunities that other paths do not.
6. Mastery Approach Over Ego (aka forget about university, rankings, etc.)
Your goal should not be to have your junior impress college coaches or equipment reps. I repeat this should not be your goal for your child. Once again, if your goal is to teach your kid that he can do anything if he sets his/her mind to it (or some other life lesson), that’s great! But that does not have anything to do with impressing anyone. Improvement is all that matters in this game and it provides enough stress. Although many professional players go through the junior golf progression I just outlined, many do not because of being a late-bloomer or family finances.
Also, if there is ever regression in your junior’s game, that is okay and normal. As long as they follow a logical practice strategy and have passion (which you cannot force), improvement in the long run will occur. Remember it is a ten-to-twenty year process in which you are only apart of the first few years.
7. Last, but not least-- No Guilt.
This is a big one. If your junior plays poorly, doesn’t practice regularly, or decides to quit at some point along the process, that is okay. They owe you nothing for your personal financial investment decisions. After all, they are children, and are still discovering their own likes and dislikes. Nothing is worse than a quiet car ride home because everyone is upset because of a golf score. If you are following a mastery approach to golf, one data point (like shooting an 85) is not a big deal and just good information for how to get better in the long run (a ten-to-twenty year process as I have mentioned!).
If you have any questions or an article request, please hit the Contact tab at the top of the screen, and send me your message. I’ll try my best to get back to you as soon as I am able.
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