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Resurrected Waukegan golf program doubles in size; ‘We’re trying to create the next generation of golfers’

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Asked to give junior golf a boost by the Waukegan Park District Board of Commissioners after it was discontinued four years ago — in part because of the coronavirus pandemic — the program doubled in size from pre-COVID levels when it started again on Thursday.

Jon Beckman, the Park District’s director of finance, said an effort has been made to make the cost of playing the game and the equipment needed more affordable for the young families of Waukegan.

Open to children ages 5 through 12, Beckman said youngsters who complete the four-week clinic learning the fundamentals of the game get to keep their set of clubs and get new ones as they grow bigger. Scholarships are also available.

A youngster watches his putt during a golf open house at Bonnie Brook Golf Course in Waukegan. (Steve Sadin/For the Lake County News-Sun)

“They pay it forward,” he said. “They turn in the old set, and get new ones which are the right size. When they’re 13, it’s a full set of (14) clubs. We’re trying to create the next generation of golfers.”

Beckman and Michael Jesse, the Park District’s manager of operations and a PGA teaching professional, gave 30 families a taste of golf at an open house Wednesday at the Bonnie Brook Golf Course in Waukegan with a putting contest, a mini-lesson and a tour of the facility.

Youngsters enrolled in the four-week clinic get more than a free set of clubs when they finish. Jesse said they may be ready to play the Park District’s par-3 Greenshire Golf Course. Beckman said they will have the tools to develop their skills on their own.

“They’ll learn the rules of the game,” he said. “They’ll learn to putt, to chip and to drive. They’ll learn how to swing the club.”

Heather Hamlet brought her son Daniel Hamlet-Ruiz, a second grader at Andrew Cooke Magnet Elementary School in Waukegan, to the clinic. She said he has tried baseball, soccer and now it is time to learn something about golf. He is registered for the clinic.

“I’ve never played,” Hamlet said. “My dad is a golfer. He’ll be excited Andrew is learning to play.”

Daniel Chapa is another parent who wants his children, ages 5 and 6, to experience a variety of sports and activities. He said he learned about the open house on social media and decided to bring the youngsters.

“I want them to get a chance to experience everything,” he said. “They’ll see what they like and keep with it.”

At the time the program was discontinued in 2020, Beckman said between 20 and 30 children were participating in junior golf. Now there are about 60 youngsters registered.

A putting contest was part of a golf open house at Bonnie Brook Golf Course in Waukegan. (Steve Sadin/For the Lake County News-Sun)
A putting contest was part of a golf open house at Bonnie Brook Golf Course in Waukegan. (Steve Sadin/For the Lake County News-Sun)

Anton Mathews, the president of the Park District’s Board of Commissioners, said after the open house he is pleased with the growth of the program and collaboration going on with other organizations to grow interest in golf.

“It’s very exciting,” Mathews said. “Kids are getting started. We’re making clubs available, and offering financial assistance. We’re finding ways to collaborate with other park districts. We’re very happy with it.”

Looking for other ways to expose young people to golf, Beckman said the Park District runs a program with the Boys & Girls Club of Lake County. They send people to the clubs’ camps.

Using oversized clubs and tennis balls, Beckman said Park District personnel go to the Boys & Girls Clubs and give youngsters the chance to aim for targets rather than holes on a course.

“We want them to feel comfortable hitting the ball,” he said.

With the ability to keep their clubs and get financial assistance, Jesse said it opens the opportunity for young golfers to continue to practice and develop their skills. Should he see one of his young charges at the driving range, he will watch and offer advice.

“If they keep the clubs, they can keep practicing and playing,” Jesse said.

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