SAN DIEGO -- The organizers of the PGA Junior League National Championships like to characterize their event as the Little League World Series of golf.
That's a bit of an overreach, considering the event is still in its infancy. But like their brethren in youth baseball, San Diego kids already are making their presence felt in the tournament.
A team from The Grand Del Mar Golf Club reached the inaugural nationals five years ago, and this week an all-star squad from the Encinitas Ranch-based Junior League will be one of eight teams playing for the title at the Walt Disney Palms Course in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
In the past two years, the San Diego team was narrowly beaten in regionals by a Northern California squad that won nationals. This year, it wasn't close. Coach John Mason's team went 3-0 in head-to-head matches against NorCal, Oregon and Washington in Newberg, Ore.
The happiest kid on the team? Probably Shane Ffrench, who at 13 is aging out this year and played on the first Grand team.
"When we made it to regionals, I really started thinking about how much fun I had the first time, how much adrenaline you get from playing in these team events," Mason, an eighth-grader at Carmel Valley Middle School, said. "I was pumping up my team, telling them how sweet it was."
The first Junior League Championship was played at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, Ga. Brian Ffrench, Shane's dad, recalled that the members set up the locker room in quadrants for each team. The kids had their own lockers and opened them to find a bunch of golf goodies.
"It was freakin' fantastic," said Brian Ffrench, whose older son, Colin, also was on the first Grand team. "The kids were treated like little pros. It was awesome. My kids got so juiced and jacked about it.
"I would definitely credit Junior League to a great extent with them liking golf."
A Little League for junior golf seems like a no-brainer, given the popularity and history of team events such as the Ryder Cup. But the PGA Junior League was a long time in coming. A private company had run it with only modest growth until the PGA of America took over, involving PGA instructors and the golf courses at which they teach.
It has grown tremendously. In 2012, there were 123 teams nationally. That grew to 740 in '13, 1,425 in '14 and 2,500 this year. There are 30,000 kids involved now.
San Diego already is the hotbed for Junior League in the PGA Southern California Section, where there were 78 teams this past season.
The appeal of Junior League is this: Teams consisting of 8 to 12 golfers of varying skill levels play head-to-head, two-person matches of three holes each. The format is best-ball, so the pressure isn't on any one golfer. Girls and boys play together. The kids get numbered uniforms, practice together and then have match days.
"The biggest appeal of this program is the team atmosphere," said Nikki Gatch, player development manager for PGA's Southern California Section. "It's what attracts kids to so many sports. Golf can be intimidating if you jump right into junior tournaments. With this format, they've got a team and a coach. Kids are being exposed to the game at the grassroots level."
Mason has been instrumental in PGAJL's rise in San Diego, growing his league at Encinitas Ranch to the four teams from which he picked his all-stars. His youngest competitor is 9-year-old Jay Leng Jr., who won the National Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National in April.
"It's been unbelievable with the camaraderie and the friendships the kids have made," Mason said. "When we first get together for practices they're hesitant to talk to each other. And as the season goes on they are ribbing and kidding each other. They have all sorts of fun."
As a dad, Brian Ffrench raves about the program while lamenting that more top-level kids aren't getting involved on teams. He said he's spoken to parents who don't think Junior League is "serious" enough for their golfer.
"I really want this to grow," Ffrench said. "I want some of these parents who don't think it's crazy competitive to understand that the kids are having a blast doing this. Let them do it. It's not all about winning and losing."
This article was written by Tod Leonard from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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