Golf was riding high with decades of exponential growth in participation, but recent studies show the sport is now fighting to retain current players.
The National Golf Foundation's 2016 study of golf participation revealed another slight drop. Factoring in the statistical margin of error, golf participation over the last 10 years, according to the NGF, is flat at best.
Recognizing the trend of declining play, the PGA of America initiated its PGA Junior League Golf program three years ago in an effort to grow the game.
Several Albuquerque-area golf courses jumped on board the first year of the program, and the numbers are climbing -- in participating golf courses and players.
"It's a blast, and such a good deal for the kids," said Arroyo del Oso Golf Course head professional Casey Coontz.
Coontz said the number of kids participating at Arroyo del Oso increased so fast in three years, the course had to cap the number of participants. Courses such as Puerto del Sol and The Canyon Club started with just a dozen players, and have now more than doubled their numbers.
Local PGA professionals serve as the "coaches" of their players, and the format of competition combines fun with a competitive environment against teams from other Albuquerque-area courses.
Matches are played on Sundays throughout the summer months, with the top teams earning the chance to compete on the regional competitive level, and ultimately, the national championships.
"It's a two-person scramble," said Ron Allen, head professional at Puerto del Sol Golf Course and Learning Center of the playing format. "It forces kids to communicate with each other, like 'which shot should we use?' or 'should we putt uphill or downhill?' You have to make decisions."
The scramble format allows each player to hit a shot from the same spot. The team will then decide which player had the best shot, and proceed until completing the hole.
PGA Junior League Golf is nationally sanctioned for boys and girls 13 and under, although there is now growing interest and participation in the non-sanctioned 16-and-under age group.
There is a registration fee to participate in the program, and kids playing matches at away courses -- wearing their course's unique uniforms with individual numbers -- receive discounted greens fees.
Tanoan Country Club has 47 kids in this year's program, which may be the largest group in New Mexico. Sig Dalen, first assistant PGA professional at Tanoan Country Club, said the PGA hit a home run with this program.
"It takes the pressure off of playing stroke play at a young age," Dalen said. "Who wants to swing it 100 times? It doesn't feel too good in an 18-hole match. This being a nine-hole format, you both get a crack at it, and it relieves some of the pressure."
While fun is the thread that winds through the program, golf, perhaps as much as any sport, is defined by its rules. At The Canyon Club at Four Hills, LPGA professional Shelly Collins said that the program simplifies the playing rules for the kids, but still protects the game's integrity.
"The rules are a little less stringent," Collins said, pointing to pace of play as a consideration. "We don't always use the honor system. ... We don't want to bog the kids down too much with the rules."
But some of the rules are hard and fast -- something 11-year-old Olivia Zamarripa learned since she joined Puerto del Sol's PGA Junior Golf League program.
"A lot of people have trouble (with the rule) about improving your lie," Zamarripa said. "You get a club length to improve your lie. If you're in the rough, you can't get a club length and move it back into the fairway. A lot of people make that mistake, and I used to do that. I've learned a lot, and now I'm correcting people."
Allen explained that teams play a modified match play. Strokes are counted just to determine the winner of a hole, and the nine holes are split into three sections with a "flag" at stake for winning a three-hole section. The obvious goal is to sweep all three flags.
Keona Weirick, a 13-year-old home-schooled in Albuquerque, started playing golf several years ago, and admits she didn't take the game -- or the rules -- that seriously. She preferred to shed her footwear and walk the fairways bare-footed.
Now in her third year in the PGA Junior League Golf, Weirick said her putting has improved the most, and she recently sank a long putt to end a match clinching a three-flag sweep for her team.
Once whimsical about the game, Weirick now has bigger goals.
"Yes, I'm hooked (on the game)," Weirick said. "I would like to get a scholarship to go somewhere for golf."
Ray Moore introduced his grandson, Isreal "Izzy" Moore, to golf several years ago, and encouraged Izzy to join the PGA Junior League Golf program at Puerto del Sol. Grandpa Moore has seen his grandson's leadership and confidence grow and is impressed with the lessons the young kids are learning.
"Where else can you take kids, get them outside, and get them to be somewhat athletic in a controlled environment where they're safe and learning good skills?" Ray Moore said. "They're learning golf etiquette, and you can take that golf etiquette into life."
This article is written by Patrick Newell from Albuquerque Journal and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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