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Team-style junior golf proves to be big hit

Moments before Jett Wyckoff was going to tee off Sunday afternoon at Arroyo del Oso, he was asked who wins the chipping contests between him and his dad, Kevin.

The 10-year-old golfer didn’t say anything. He looked up from under his the brim of his hat, flashed a sly half smile and nodded his head while his dad could only laugh.

“Yeah, he’s getting pretty good,” said Kevin Wyckoff. “I’m just glad we found a way for him to really enjoy it and not get discouraged, which golf can sometimes do to you.”

Jett has played for just about a year now. This summer, he’s enjoying seeing his game develop further as a part of the city’s PGA Junior League Golf program – a format of team-style golf designed to socialize kids ages 13 and under with the game in a less stressful way than traditional stroke-play format.

“I think it’s really nice because other people who don’t always play get to play golf,” Jett said. “And if somebody hits a good shot, you can congratulate them and you both get to help each other.”

The program, in its first full year at five courses around Albuquerque (there are also teams in Farmington and El Paso), pairs players of varying ability levels in two-player team formats playing against twosomes from other courses in a modified scramble/match play format.

“We try to pair up a really good kid with a novice who hasn’t played much,” said Gerome Espinoza, a PGA Apprentice at Arroyo del Oso, who is one of the coaches spearheading developing the junior league program in New Mexico. “That newer kid might only hit one out of every two or three shots really well, but they don’t have the pressure of playing their own ball thinking if they just duffed it, they have go track it down in the weeds. They both get to go to the good ball.”

The teams don uniforms and compete in nine-hole competitions each Sunday. The first full year brought out 111 kids in the Albuquerque area. Espinoza sees it only growing from here.

“This is, hands down, just the coolest thing I’ve seen for kids on the golf course,” said Espinoza, the former boys basketball coach at Del Norte High. “They’re out here playing golf, learning the rules and even the parents (are) learning, too.”

The teams get one hour of instruction each week. Maybe the program’s most appealing aspect is how it seems to keep the interest of players of all abilities.

“I love it because this game gets very monotonous after a while and you hate to burn them out,” said Andrea Yusnukis, whose children Austin Jet and Avery Sky are not only members of the UNM North junior league team, but have also had plenty of success on the Sun Country Junior Golf Tour and other events around the Southwest.

“We try to incorporate other sports into their life, but can’t commit to too many other organized sports to play on weekends that are part of a team. This format, it’s great for that and it keeps the interest up. I’d definitely recommend it to the total beginner.”

Austin, 12, and his 10-year-old sister have been playing golf since they were rolling balls into holes as 1-year-olds. He said he’s learned more in the junior league because the team aspect provides a rare opportunity to look at the game from a different perspective.

“If I’m playing with someone who’s a total beginner, I’ll try to help them out – try to help them with their swing, show them what they’re doing wrong, where to go on this hole or where to position it,” Austin said. “… In this format, you play as a team. In Sun Country, you’re playing individually and counting on yourself.”

Espinoza said the best way for parents to inquire about the program for next summer is simply talking to the pros at the various courses. More information can also be found at pgajuniorleaguegolf.com.

Many junior golf programs, be it lessons, camps or leagues, have already begun for the summer. Check with individual courses for junior programs available.

⋄  The Lowry Golf Academy offers two-week camps, parent/junior supervised practices and one-week group camps for golfers ages 6-15. For a complete list of camps, times and prices, call Rob Lowry at 366-8642 or email lowrygolf@gmail.com.

⋄  Weekly junior golf camps on Tuesdays through Thursdays at Los Altos Golf Course are available through July for $60 per students age 7-17. Instruction will include etiquette, rules and basic swing, chipping and putting fundamentals. Sign up at the pro shop or call 298-1897.

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