When a group of 13 to 15-year old golfers arrived at the 18-hole Paramus Golf Course at 8am Monday, the conditions were perfect for a great day of golf.
Players such as Glen Rock resident Matt Carbone, Ridgewood native Mike Casale, and Brandon Russo and Kevin Himber, both from Mahwah, appeared very comfortable on the greens, as they sized up their putts and took their best shots.
Simultaneously, another group of teens were also competing at the Darlington Golf Course in Mahwah, bringing the total number of golfers to 100, as both courses hosted the Bergen County Department of Parks’ Pioneer Junior Tour, now celebrating its 20th year.
The entire tour will feature almost 800 young golfers in various divisions.
“It’s been a great pool for the high school golf teams,” said Tom McGovern, the county’s manager for the Rockleigh and Valley Brook Golf courses who are also hosting the tour. “These kids are playing from grammar school, and middle school, and getting competition under their belts. When they go to high school, they’ll be ready.”
The program brings instruction and competition to young golfers between the ages of 8 to 18, and introduces them to the excitement and challenges of golf, while emphasizing the honor, etiquette and traditions of the game.
The golfers play within one of four divisions, boys 12 and under, 13-15, 16-18, and the girls division. The tour will allow them to play once a week for seven weeks at various public and private golf courses, some of which are rated top in the nation.
The Pioneer Tour is also being hosted at the River Vale Golf Course, the Montammy Country Club in Alpine, the Rockleigh Golf Course, the Arcola Country Club in Paramus, the Forest Hill Field Club in Bloomfield, the Valley Brook County Golf Course in River Vale, the Knickerbocker Country Club in Tenafly, the Hackensack Country Club in Oradell, and the Orchard Hills Golf Course in Paramus.
The Parks Department relies on area golf professionals, local high school golf coaches and volunteer amateur golfers to continue the program’s successful run.
In addition to the tour, the Department of Parks also organizes a clinic with six progressive instructional sessions designed to introduce young golfers to the game; the Q-Tour, a program for young golfers who understand the basics of the game, but cannot consistently break 60 for 9 holes, and a special program designed for autistic children.
Kevin Purcell, General Manager of Golf Courses for Bergen County’s Department of Parks, attributes part of the program’s success to the challenge many municipalities face – lack of golf courses.
“It’s not like basketball, how it’s available in every town or every school or baseball,” said Purcell. “Because golf takes so much time and has to be done on a golf course, there needs to be a bigger organization involved. Paramus is very lucky to have its own golf course.”
“We’ve [county] put together a good program and kids come out because this is the place to go,” Purcell added.
The program originally started at the Orchard Hills 9-hole golf course in Paramus in 1993 by Doug and Linda Yennie. Doug Yennie, a golf coach, was traveling with his Bergen Community College Bulldogs team to an event in Virginia when his team was denied access to a course due to a junior program in session.
The husband and wife team were so impressed with the turnout of young participants, they approached Bergen County with the idea of hosting junior golf tournaments on county golf courses. The Director of Parks supported the idea and the Pioneer Tour was born.
The Yennies, who were at the Darlington Golf Course for day one of the tour, still run the program on a volunteer basis.
“You look back 20 years ago, they were trying to put something together to get kids involved in golf and it’s evolved to what it is today,” said Andy Schuckers, at Paramus Golf Course a year ago. “It’s certainly grown and it’s flourishing.
At a time when golf numbers are down nationwide, said Schuckers, the Pioneer Tour “seems to be one thing that’s growing and doing better.”
“I think it’s the people that run it,” Schuckers added. “Kevin [Purcell] does a good job of putting a good program together and getting in touch with high school coaches and others. It seems to be a pretty good draw for local golfers.”
Although other youth programs have risen over the years from the New Jersey State Golf Association, the PGA Junior Series, the International Junior Golf Tour, and the American Junior Golf Association, Purcell says some are expensive and others require players to qualify.
The Pioneer program is only $20 per application and $10 for each tournament. Despite the nominal fees, the program has turned out several professionals including Martin Catalioto, Jeannine Mondesando, Ken Macdonald, Mark Costanza, Katie Allison, Andrew Giuliani, Kasie Lee and Morgan Hoffman.
But creating the next Tiger Woods or Na Yeon Choi, who just won the Women's U.S. Open on Sunday, is not the intent of the Pioneer Tour.
“Our goal was never to create great golfers. Our goal was to create the opportunity for kids to learn, to get out on the golf courses, to see if they enjoy it at a young age, and then create golfers out of that,” Purcell said, adding the more golfers the county creates, the more revenue the county generates.
“And it also helps golf at other golf courses in the county like Paramus [Golf Course], and private courses,” Purcell added. “Even the private courses have come put to support the program because it’s helping to grow the game and gives exposure to their course. There’s dozens of kids in this program who will one day join a golf club. They’ll see the courses at this age and aspire to that.”
As golfers of all ages, from toddlers to seniors, traversed the golf course during the tour, McGovern explained why the sport draws players from such a wide age range.
“You can play golf your whole life,” McGovern said. “With basketball, guys want to play it their whole life but they can’t. With the handicap system, you can play golf from 12 to 112, and be competitive with each other.”
The Pioneer tour spawned the Future Champions Tour of Mercer County and received national recognition when awarded the 2003 Golf Digest Earl Woods Trophy for junior golf development in the Municipal category.
Qualifying rounds will be held at Overpeck Golf Course in Teaneck, and match play at Valley Brook Golf Course in River Vale. The tour championship will be held at the Apple Ridge Country Club in Mahwah on Aug 29. For a complete list of locations and dates, and more information, click here.