The new PGA Junior League Golf season is upon us, with leagues nationwide beginning regular-season play this spring.
When it comes to junior golf's team concept, there's no bigger proponent of the idea than PGA Professional John Mason. And that was even before he captained the winning Team California squad in last fall's PGA Junior League Golf championship.
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As Director of Instruction at the Encinitas Ranch Golf Course in Encinitas, Calif., a suburb of San Diego, Mason knows how well the PGA Junior League Golf format works, because he's seen all the positive ways it's growing the sport. It's fun, it's exciting and it allows young golfers with a variety of skill sets to compete together.
"Two-person scramble is such a great format," Mason said. "If parents are looking for their child to learn how to work as a team, here it is. You could have a junior who's a pretty good player and has been playing a while, and one that hasn't played at all, and they can get along and have fun. The one that's a little more skilled will bring along the one that's less skilled. And it's really fun to see.
"Also, it's a confidence-builder. I've seen kids come in who are extremely shy, and they're really hesitant to do anything. And after a few weeks of practicing and playing with the team, they're having fun and talking and having some input into the decision-making."
Because of the weather and the quality of golf in the San Diego area, Mason says there are two types of junior golfers: those who play year-round and others who just play golf in between other sports seasons. The PGA Junior League Golf format appeals to both. And that means more youth golfers trying the sport for the first time.
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"It's probably attracted some of the players and parents who were on the fringe," Mason said. "They were playing other sports and looking at golf as more of an individual sport. And when they see PGA Junior League, they change their mind about the game of golf.
"The kids are having a lot more fun, they don't have to post their scores, they're not embarrassed, there's a lot of things involved there."
The elite junior players have other avenues, Mason said, but he's seeing a lot of intermediate players using PGA Junior League Golf -- plus the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship -- as a stepping stone to the next level as well.
Having a positive experience like being part of a team in PGA Junior League Golf may propel a youth golfer into wanting to continue playing the sport. And for Mason, who has 28 years of experience in teaching, getting the next generation hooked for a lifetime is the challenge.
"What motivates people to keep playing golf their entire lives?" Mason asked. "I've seen a lot of young people come through and they don't have a good experience with it or don't have any fun or are not playing well, so they go on to other things.
"The ones that are brought along with the other kids and they develop a feel for the game and get some confidence, they may get to play high school golf. And then if they somehow get to the college level, wow, that's really big. Players who play high school and college golf, they tend to play their entire lives."
That's especially critical as young golfers grow up.
"It's about that little time between 25 and 45, when life gets in the way and you have your job and your family," Mason said. "If they keep playing in that timeframe, they'll usually play their entire lives."
As far as his Encinitas Ranch team, Mason said the afterglow from winning the championship last November at Walt Disney World hasn't worn off yet. Headquarters for companies like Callaway and TaylorMade Adidas are less than 10 miles away, so the kids have been treated like royalty.
"We've got all the manufacturers near here," Mason said. "We went to TaylorMade and then to Callaway. The kids had a lot of fun.
"Some even got to go on the Golf Channel when we were in Florida. That was their '15 minutes,' so to speak, at that point. And they're still on Cloud Nine."
According to a recently released report on the game by the National Golf Association, junior golf has grown by some 500,000 players in the past five years. According to the PGA of America, there were approximately 30,000 Junior League golfers on 2,500 teams last summer.
That's one reason why PGA of America CEO Pete Bevacqua feels golf has "has a nice momentum and very nice energy to it right now."
"I've never been as motivated or enthusiastic as I am about PGA Junior League Golf," Bevacqua said. "To see how it's grown from year to year, and it's still a relatively new program. We've taken a conservative approach but we're about to change that. We want it to grow rapidly at this point and really putting our efforts and resources behind it."