Wearing her Florida Gators visor and children’s golf clubs, including one with a unicorn headgear, 9-year-old Charlotte Pierce showed up to the Juliet Falls Golf Course in Dunnellon ready to play golf recently.
In week two of the Gator Junior Golf Association’s 10-week lesson series, Charlotte was one of 10 young golfers competing in putting contests set up by instructor Lon Kinney to teach them ” distance and direction.
Undeterred by her first putt from 22 feet only going a third of the way to the hole, Charlotte lined up her second shot, looked down the hole and swung.
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She sank the 15-foot putt and leapt into the air, bringing new friend Alexis Hinkell, 12, to offer a high five and “Good job!”
Kinney, 70, jokingly collapsed on the green.
“It was amazing,” he told Charlotte. “I almost couldn’t get up.”
Kinney, a PGA professional, is one of several instructors with the nonprofit Gator Junior Golf organization in Marion, Alachua and Columbia counties who are working to make the game of golf more accessible to children and their teach life skills, such as respect and honesty, along the way.
Teaching Skills for Golf and Life
“The goal is just to introduce kids to the game. They’re going to be able to play it for a lifetime, but the life skills that go with it, we kind of slip them in there,” Kinney said, noting that every week revolves around a word like courtesy, sportsmanship, responsibility. or integrity.
Gator Junior Golf started in Gainesville in 2017 after splitting from the First Tee organization. Founder Sean Warner says he’s grown from 20 to 30 kids and two classes, then to about 220 kids in 18 classes this season across six golf courses.
Juliette Falls in Dunnellon is the first course in Marion County to offer the lessons and is now in its third season.
“8, 9, 10 year olds aren’t necessarily going to be excited about learning life skills, so we’re using golf as an opportunity to introduce that,” Warner said. “Golf really contains a lot of things. it’s great things to learn… You keep your score by yourself, so you have to have integrity to give yourself penalties and shake hands, introduce yourself, all these things.
Gator Junior Golf offers seven levels of program, from beginners as young as 4 years old through high school. Since the program is still running at Dunnellon, Kinney teaches all levels in the same one-hour class each week.
The older students, who often already compete in tournaments, act as mentors for the younger ones, who will progress from putting to chipping to more advanced skills like driving through the lessons.
Make golf more accessible
The 10-week Juliette Falls series costs $150, but the nonprofit, which receives funds through donations, sponsorships and grants, also offers financial assistance to those in need.
“Golf is kind of seen as an expensive sport, so we’re trying to make it financially more accessible to everyone,” Warner said. “We don’t turn away anyone who can’t afford the course fees.”
They can also provide equipment if a student doesn’t have their own clubs or collared shirt, which Warner says is a plus for parents who aren’t sure if their child will stick with the game.
Kinney, who agrees that golf is considered less accessible than other sports, says the nonprofit is doing everything it can to introduce kids to the game and hopefully stick with it. .
“You have to be good at having fun because kids, if they’re not having fun, they won’t be around very long, so I’m pretty good at it after having a career in gaming,” Kinney said. .
Kinney estimates he has played in 400 tournaments over his 39-year career. During lessons, he can be heard offering advice and encouragement, telling kids to “get your putter lined up” or reminding them “there’s no room for anger in the game of golf.”
“Not all kids like competition,” Kinney said. “You can see the spark in the first putting contest. They want to win it, and some kids, they go the other way. will stick to it.”
Golf is a family affair
Putting contests also provide an opportunity for lessons in sportsmanship, as was the case with a showdown on the green between 7-year-old Matthew Solarez and his older brother William, 9.
“And the little brother wins!” Matthew screamed after playing fewer shots than his opponents and throwing his arms in the air.
“If you were a good sportsman, you’d go shake his hand and give him a high five,” Kinney told Matthew, who then patted his brother on the back and held out his hand.
“It’s awesome,” William and Matthew’s dad, Daniel, said of the life-skills lessons. “Here, it’s very much a question of respect for the course, of sportsmanship.”
He noted that the lessons provided great foundations, fundamentals and now next-level skills for his sons, who are in their third season of Gator Junior golf lessons and also compete in tournaments.
“I know how to play, but I’m not a coach,” he said. “I don’t know how to teach them, so it’s good that they have someone who has experience with children and can help.”
Alexis’ dad, Ray Milukas Jr., and 11-year-old Christian Chevere’s dad, Jorge, both echoed Solarez in that they love golf but aren’t teachers.
“We heard him (Kinney) with the kids (last week) use special words, and it was just perfect. It was really cool,” Chevere said. “The only thing was ‘respect.’ and that’s unfortunately in the world we live in today, they don’t have those values, so that was definitely a plus.”
Milukas Jr. said the lessons were a bit of therapy and social time for Alexis and that she had already improved after not understanding the exercises the previous week.
“Her attention span is short, so we try to bring her out of her shell,” he said. “Last week, oh my God, she didn’t want to do anything. Now I have a totally different person.
Grow the game
Gator Junior Golf has also partnered with other groups to “grow the game”, including after-school programs Girls Place and Reichert House in Gainesville.
“Both kind of fall into the category of at-risk and disadvantaged youth,” Warner said. “It’s a great way to introduce kids to golf who definitely wouldn’t have had the chance and honestly probably wouldn’t even think about it, and so it’s special.”
They also have a program at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, where they have offered golf activities for children without ever leaving the hospital, but it is temporarily suspended during the coronavirus pandemic.
Warner hopes to expand into more programs like these, as well as other golf courses in the future. Kinney pointed out that Juliette Falls, who was recently ranked eighth in the country in the 2022 NBC GolfPass Golfers Choice list, welcomed them with open arms and made expansion into Marion County possible.
Contact reporter Danielle Johnson at [email protected]