When high school golf season rolls around every August, Brian Muehlhaus and Garry Lee begin to feel like they’re practicing with khaki golf clubs in a world of graphite and titanium.

Each season is guaranteed to bring a slew of players who are almost completely new to the game.

This year, several members of the Bloomington North team at Muehlhaus had never played a game of competitive golf. Lee also has his fair share on his Edgewood roster and even South’s Jim Southern and Dustin Carver, who have an unofficial junior program they started a few years ago, still see raw golfers too.

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Few other high school coaches in Monroe County have to manage so many of every team from scratch.

“We don’t have college golf,” Muehlhaus said. “Kids aren’t exposed to golf early on, so you really struggle with that.

“I sat down a few years ago and thought that when I was still coaching the boys, 85% of all the boys and girls I coached were basically beginners, freshmen. The thing is, it’s hard to compete when you’re a beginner golfer. Everyone here has college golf except Monroe County and that’s sad for me.

Edgewood Boys' Head Golf Coach Garry Lee (left) chats with senior Nehemiah Yazzie during the Mustangs' doubleheader against Monrovia during the 2022 boys' golf season.

Competitive golfers need self-determination

With no power system in place, the fortunes of the North, South and Edgewood golf teams wax and wane in numbers and talent.

Golf is an expensive sport, with the price of clubs, balls, other equipment, green fees and club memberships all adding up. And exposing young players to competitive situations doesn’t come cheap either.

So in the Bloomington area, it’s a matter of some self-determination to start preparing for a high school golf career without formal development programs. The number of players who do so is random each year.

“I give more lessons than a high school golf coach should give,” Lee said. “Most of the girls that play for us, you look at Candice Rosemeier, she plays basketball and softball, they’re busy every season.

“But a lot of them have never done much more than hang out with (their) dad once or twice. I feel like I’m teaching the golf swing more than I ever would.

Even a lesson or two before the season would be a huge help, Muehlhaus said, and would send the message that they take the sport seriously and want to improve and fight for a college spot.

But as individuals, each of them has different motivations for being part of the team and therefore very different levels of commitment to the sport.

Edgewood's Candace Rosemeier tees off during the IHSAA Girls' Golf Section at Cascades Golf Course on Monday.

For some, staying after practice or spending part of a weekend on the range or playing a game is not something that motivates them. Others must be pushed out of the way.

Beginners can become college golfers. Lee’s best example comes from just a few years ago. Parker Harrington, a basketball player now breaking out in Oakland City, wanted to get into a spring sport and brought his competitive spirit to the game.

“He was absolutely atrocious his first two weeks,” Lee said. “We changed his grip and position and he was playing our No. 5 in the first month. But we had to kick him out of the driving range.

Practical coaching or not?

So both coaches, as competitive as they are as individuals, have to step back and push each player to a different level. For some, the social aspect of the team is an important part of why they are there.

Different skill levels end up pulling coaches in different directions. For one, they have their group of mostly experienced college players. In North’s case, senior Darian Lafferty is way ahead of her teammates at the moment. And with Edgewood, his top five college players are well ahead of the other eight.

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Without assistants or volunteer helpers, this leaves a large void in the type and amount of instruction required.

For brand-new players, there’s often too much ground to cover, in a season that lasts less than 50 days, to prepare them for a college tour. If they don’t do extra work before or during the season, it’s almost a given.

“I have to focus on my university,” Muehlhaus said. “I know it’s frustrating, but if a freshman wants out who’s never played golf, you’re welcome, but you’re probably not going to play in a game.”

A team of over a dozen makes it difficult to get enough attention where it’s needed. Edgewood, for example, plays a heavy nine-hole doubleheader, so practice days are extremely limited anyway.

“Once we start playing, I’m like, ‘I don’t have time to take you all to the driving range and figure out what’s wrong,'” Lee said.

Darian Lafferty of Bloomington North hits a tee shot during the Bloomington North-Bloomington South golf match at Cascades Golf Course on September 1, 2021.

The season is coming fast and strong. A year ago, Lee recalled taking his team to the Western Indiana Conference tournament. For three of them, it would be the first 18-hole tournament of their lives.

Once on the course, the lack of experience of the players manifests itself.

Issues such as pace of play, proper etiquette around the green, ball marking and divot repair have coaches scrambling early in the year. The constant reminders of the rules, especially for repeat offenders, are a bane for a regular tournament player such as Muehlhaus.

“I love the rules,” he said. “But there is so little time and so many people need so much attention.”

Parents also have a learning curve, talking or cheering too loudly at inappropriate times or “stalking” players by walking behind them on the fairway, which particularly bothers Southern.

Worse still, the parents who know better, supervise their children during the rounds, which is against the rules. They have to stay 30 yards away at all times, but for some that’s just too tempting.

Junior Panthers tee shot

South hopes its new Junior Panthers golf program will improve the experience for student golfers.

Prior to COVID, George Finley had an informal program working with young golfers and introducing them to the fundamentals of the game. When that ended, Southern was persuaded to launch a new program in 2021 that was still independent of MCCSC school districts. or RBB.

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“The sad thing about Monroe County is that the three colleges don’t have a sponsored golf team,” Southern said. “I have a job in construction and I didn’t start golf until I was 24 and I would have liked to do it at 3 years old. I love this game so much.

“I got hooked and exposed my daughters to it. They’ve both had a club in their hands since they were 3 years old.

It’s a mixed program, with nearly two dozen players, more boys than girls, but he’s there. They practice at the Bloomington Country Club and on occasion Southern and the players’ parents will pack their cars and play games against area schools, with Stone Crest as their home course.

Bloomington South's Melanie Southern tees off during the IHSAA Girls' Golf Section at Cascades Golf Course last season.  Southern played in many junior tournaments before joining the Panthers.

“We go to these games and see the other teams show up in school buses and uniforms,” Southern said. “We don’t have buses or uniforms. Paoli has his own college golf team and we don’t. It’s laughable.

The six-week program, open to all junior high students in the region, makes all the difference. And yes, it also addresses parents and the rules regarding their behavior.

“First day of practice, we set the tone,” Southern said. “A good grip, the fundamentals. We set the baseline and coach each individual. We try to simplify it as much as possible.

Still, Southern has a number of players reaching high school and playing an 18-hole round for the first time.

He would like to see a combined countywide team with support from both school districts. But it continues to be like playing a round of golf with just six of the 14 clubs allowed.

“We tried to do things, but each step makes it harder,” Muehlhaus said.

“It would take maybe $500 to have someone come in and work with the middle school students two or three times a week,” Lee said. “Maybe play with kids from other schools here.”

But she was told the money wasn’t there, meaning it would take a volunteer effort to fill the void.

Contact Jim Gordillo at [email protected]