As youth sports sit idle, junior golf has been providing young players normalcy

players practicing social distancing

Young players practice social distancing before taking the course.

Ryan Asselta

One by one the cancelations and postponements made their way into my inbox. Championship weekend for travel basketball: postponed. Travel soccer season: canceled. Opening day for Little League: on hold until at least the summer. With each announcement came a conversation I dreaded having with my two sports-obsessed sons, Michael, 12, and Rory, 10. Explaining to them why they couldn’t play, compete and be with their teammates this spring was a difficult task, sometimes resulting in tears streaming down their cheeks.

But as the cancelations piled up, there was a glimmer of hope: golf.

Golf is our boys’ primary sport, and with courses opening up around the country, there was cause for optimism. While Little League International was announcing the cancelation of the 2020 World Series in Williamsport, Pa., U.S. Kids Golf announced plans to play the World Championships at Pinehurst in late July as scheduled. The organization also gave the all clear for local golf tours to start or resume, contingent upon state approvals.

For the last three weeks, our boys have been competing in Connecticut, on the U.S. Kids Hartford Tour. With New Jersey and New York’s junior tours shuttered, Connecticut was our best and nearest option.

two junior golfers
The author’s son, Rory, left, and Justin Peck, both 10 years old, at a recent U.S. Kids event. Ryan Asselta

“We held a Zoom call prior to the season explaining how the tour would look and it was very well received,” says Bob Sparks, who runs the U.S. Kids Hartford Tour.

“Everyone was excited for the season to start and get back to some sort of normalcy. The families were very happy to see all of the precautions that were being taken and they could feel safe.”

U.S. Kids Golf, which offers tournament golf to kids 6-18 years old, listed a comprehensive protocol for its dozens of local tours, ranging from social distancing, to players printing and bringing their own scorecards, to nixing post-round handshakes and awards ceremonies.

For my two boys, Michael and Rory, getting back on the golf course and competing has been a welcome diversion from weeks of remote schooling and Mom and Dad telling them to go practice their cursive writing. Both boys understand the gravity of what has happened over the past three months. The car rides to tournaments are a bit longer and the distance from their friends on the course is a bit wider but they’ve adopted an appreciation for simply being able to play.

That’s not to say there haven’t been moments of frustration. During a recent tournament, one of the ball retrieving mechanisms inside a cup was broken leaving an extremely limited amount of room for the ball to enter the hole. Michael hit a two-footer dead center only to see the ball ricochet off a piece of the ball removal system. We chalked it up as one of the “bad breaks” players might face in this new age of tournament golf. 

Brian Peck, a Westwood, N.J. resident whose son, Justin, plays on the U.S. Kids NJ tour but this spring has been playing in Connecticut, said he had a “little hesitation” about entering Justin in a tournament but that the safety measures have given him comfort. “The procedures are practical, fair for the kids and, most importantly, necessary,” he said.

Christina Graves, an oncology nurse from Vermont, said she, too, was at first reluctant to register her son, Oliver, in tournaments. Earlier this spring Christina’s employer had a strict policy that prohibited health care workers from traveling out of state. But once that ban was lifted in May, she began taking Oliver to events in Connecticut.

“Living in Vermont, the nearest U.S. Kids Golf tournaments are all two to three hours away,” Graves said. “We fill the car up with gas at home and bring our masks, hand sanitizer and snacks and water with us. We don’t make any stops on the drive down or back except to the golf course for the tournament.”

Over the first few weeks of May, the U.S. Kids Hartford tour was one of the only youth sports leagues operational in the Northeast, which has produced record numbers when it comes to registrations and field sizes, and from states all over the Northeast. Sparks estimated that 40% of the players hail from outside Connecticut.

The travel comes at a cost, forcing many families go separate ways for the day in order to manage other responsibilities at home. When Christina Graves is not working in the cancer unit at her hospital, she helps run the family business, DJ’s restaurant in Ludlow, Vt.

On a recent Saturday at Hawks Landing Golf Club in Southington, Conn., Christina caddied for Oliver while her husband stayed home prepping food for the restaurant.

golf shop at hawk's landing cc
A one-way path outside the Hawk’s Landing golf shop. Ryan Asselta

Parents do what they need to do to ensure their kids retain a sense of normalcy during unprecedented times.

“It’s a small price to pay given these circumstances,” said Peck, the New Jerseyite, who plans on traveling to Connecticut with his son for the remaining three tournaments on the spring calendar. “When it comes to golf, most important to Justin is being able to spend time on the course with his buddies, even if it’s still staying two club-lengths away from each other.”

As the end of May, U.S. Kids had 50 active local tours operating around the globe, with more expected to begin this summer. Which means instead of postponements and cancelations in their inboxes, young golfers and their families are starting to see something else: tee times.

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