Another way of paying their dues - The Explorer: Sports

Another way of paying their dues

Area country clubs open courses to promising young players

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Posted: Tuesday, July 29, 2008 11:00 pm | Updated: 8:01 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Washing cars and sweeping garages isn’t quite enough to pay a kid’s country club dues.

Yet one look at Matt McClure’s and Jamie Waltmire’s scorecards and demeanor suggests they belong on the golf course — perhaps even the private ones.

But absent of families who shell out membership fees, they’re golfing in the public realm, ducking the occasional thrown driver.

That was until Oro Valley Country Club decided to revive a youth golf “scholarship” program — dubbed “Junior Merit” — that welcomes bright linksters with swank playing privileges for scant fees.

“It’s a very good opportunity for those in it,” McClure said. “In the long run, it’s going to help my game out even more, without breaking the bank.”

The duo played and won its first nine-hole tournament against Crooked Tree Golf Course’s rival Junior Merit team at OVCC on July 13.

There, the windfall from all that range time stood apparent.

Fifteen-year-old McClure shot an even par, at 36, beating his rival by a cool eight shots. Thirteen-year-old Waltmire had “sort of an OK day,” six over at 42.

Junior Merit’s benefits to the kids seem obvious. But without fresh blood, country clubs aren’t getting any younger, nor seeding the next generation of members, said Oro Valley Country Club General Manager Kevin Green.

“For us, it’s about being involved in the community. The way clubs are going, you’ve got to be more diverse,” Green said. “You can’t be this closed-off private club that doesn’t give back. This is an opportunity for us to do that.”

Young golfers, ages 10 to 17, are typically recommended for the Junior Merit program by coaches or current members. Their admittance into the ranks hinges on interviews and essays — and remains contingent on grades and conduct.

Like walk-ons to pro teams, the youngsters prove talent isn’t tied to social strata.

McClure’s father, a novice, introduced the Salpointe Catholic sophomore to the game at age 6 on public greens. Before long he’d begun appearing in junior tourneys.

Waltmire’s grandfather was a skilled golfer, but the family remained uninterested in paying club memberships.  

The Cross Middle School eighth-grader started winning youth tourneys anyway.

Now that he’s past the gates, Waltmire said he’d like to work at OVCC after school some day, but remains content practicing for a shot at Canyon Del Oro’s varsity team in a couple years.

“The program’s helped both ways — in golf and life,” Waltmire said.

Rubbing elbows with solid, committed adult golfers only helps kids like Waltmire, said CDO varsity coach Jon Farbarik.

“He plays much older than his age,” said Farbarik, who also sponsors a golf club at Cross. “He could become a D-1 golfer, but there’s a lot of steps from here to there.”

The Junior Merit program first surfaced at OVCC around six years ago, transplanted by a member who relocated from California.

This year marks the program’s return, two defunct years after club organizers learned its structure could affect players’ NCAA eligibility down the line.

The issue was competition.

Green said the program required some semblance of league play, like when Marana’s Crooked Tree trucked its squad across town earlier in July.

But while plenty of local courses offer youth golf programs, Crooked Tree is currently the only one with a bonafide Junior Merit team to challenge the OVCC outfit.

Crooked Tree head pro Rich Mueller recalled taking advantage of a similar deal as a kid in Melbourne, Australia. Down under, all of the local clubs nurtured a junior squad that competed in match play against young golfers from other clubs.

“It was really an honor to be on your home club’s team,” Mueller said.

Green and Mueller aim for one or two more courses’ teams to join the fray, for a total of three to four summer Junior Merit matches.

“I hope the thing kicks off and gets going. We’ll do our little part in it,” Mueller said.

Mueller echoed Farbarik’s view of what Junior Merit play could accomplish for a young golfer.

CDO grad David McDaniel — a beneficiary of the program’s first go-round — advanced to the U.S. Amateur Championship in August, on the heels of twin 66’s at OVCC last week.

Subtract the youth movement, Mueller said, and resorts eventually could flirt with a position similar to that of the local club his parents joined during the 1970s. Formerly youthful and barbecue-friendly, that club has filled in all but one swimming pool with cement.

Sea changes in the country club community aren’t headed for top-dollar resorts, where members have earned unencumbered use of championship-level tees, said Phil Satterfield, GM of The Gallery Golf Club.

“Clubs are more family friendly these days,” Satterfield said. “But they’re still a select group of members who joined to recreate in a private setting.”

Still, the Gallery — along with the El Conquistador — opens the fairways to youth tournaments like this week’s Ricki Rarick Tournament of Champions, giving kids an encouraging taste of the greenery that could lie ahead.

“You do a lot of things with the community to create a demand for golf, otherwise the game will die off,” Satterfield said.

The Junior Merit kids are already learning the message of passing the game down.

McClure started working with the First Tee of Tucson a few months ago, mentoring 6- to 12-year-olds in golf and life skills during his spare time.

And along with Waltmire, the pair learned to work the other side of the driver.

They recently managed to finance their tournament travels by beating a pool of 80 OVCC members in a closest-to-the-pin contest, netting $800.

“It’s nice that they care. I’m getting to feel at home.” McClure said. “I’ll probably golf there every day — definitely as much daylight as I can get.”

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