Johnny Bozonelos, 8, got his first set of golf clubs five years ago.
"Knowing that I golfed, he wanted to play," his father, George said. "When our youngest son was born, we got Johnny a set to let him know we weren't going to forget about him. We'd go out and play at some of the starter courses or to a driving range to hit and have fun."
This summer, Johnny has taken his game to another level.
At the suggestion of his basketball coach, Chad Johansen, the younger Bozonelos joined one of the two PGA Junior League Golf teams that play out of Blackberry Oaks Golf Course in Bristol. Johansen is head PGA pro there.
The teams are part of a PGA of America initiative to grow the game. They're members of a first-year league with teams from Whitetail Ridge in Yorkville and Phillips Park in Aurora.
Players wear matching uniforms, complete with numbers on the back, just like their soccer, baseball or basketball youth teams.
"Without a doubt, it gives them a team feeling," said George Bozonelos, who operates three suburban banquet halls, including Gaslite Manor in Aurora.
The leagues utilize a unique format for their nine-hole matches.
"We pair them up in two-player teams and they play three, three-hole matches for flags in a scramble format," Phillips Park pro Jeff Schmidt said.
In a scramble, each player tees off, then hits their second ball from the best of the first two shots. They continue in that manner until they hole out.
The object is to win at least two of three holes to win those flags and not worry so much about total score.
"Johnny loves it," George Bozonelos said. "We've created a monster."
That's great news for Frank Chieppa.
A PGA pro for the past 32 years, including 17 as head pro at Randall Oaks in West Dundee, Chieppa is regional manager, player development for PGA of America. The Elgin resident is responsible for seven Midwestern states, including Illinois.
The program has grown from a handful of Illinois leagues in 2012 to 58 in 2013 to 172 this year.
Naperville Park District's courses at Naperbrook and Springbrook were among the first area courses to field teams, in 2013.
"We went from two teams with 25 kids the first year to six with 64 kids this year," Naperbrook pro Tim Dunn said.
"The kids really like the format of having a partner. There is not so much pressure on them because their partner can pick them up."
He said parents are heavily involved.
"Some bring snacks like soccer, some help with scorekeeping, or just spectating," he said.
Johansen's kids, daughter Payton, 10, and son Michael, 8, both play.
"They're always talking about golf now and swinging their clubs out in the yard," Johansen said. "It's gonna be great for the game."
Two age divisions -- 13-under and 16-under -- are offered. Teams can rotate players in and out after a flag has been won.
"When a player is out of the lineup, he or she is still involved, discussing strategy, helping line up putts and basically helping coach teammates," Schmidt said.
Teams often practice once or twice a week. Matches are scheduled from June 1 to July 31, and the courses usually offer players and their parents bargain rates as incentive to play.
"We've even seen parents picking up the game so they can play with their children," Chieppa said.
In August, coaches in each league pick a 10-player All-Star team that plays traveling matches that lead to eight regional champions who compete for a national title in November.
"It's just a neat format," Schmidt said. "It's not like the IJGA (Illinois Junior Golf Association) tournaments or other tourney circuits. It's just playing, competing, engaging and having fun."
This article was written by Rick Armstrong from the Naperville Sun, Ill. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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