With all due respect to the International Federation of PGA Tours and the World Golf Championships, the most interesting and diverse international field in the game last week was not in Arizona. It was in Jekyll Island, Ga., a normally quiet state park between Savannah and Jacksonville, Fla., that sprung to life on Valentine’s Day as 300 juniors, ages 14-and-under, descended on the south Georgia enclave to compete in the Jekyll Island Cup, a regional championship run by U.S. Kids Golf, the Atlanta-based club manufacturer that has become the premier organizer of international events for young players.
Most known for their World Championship, a 1,300-player extravaganza held in Pinehurst every August, U.S. Kids Golf has branched out with regional events in Scottsdale, Ariz., Palm Beach Gardens and Tampa, Fla., Gullane, Scotland, and Jekyll Island.
“We added the regional events thinking they would attract a mainly regional field,” said U.S. Kids Golf founder and CEO Dan Van Horn.
But nature abhors a vacuum. Once parents found competitive outlets for their elementary and middle school kids, demand burst all regional seams. The entire 7-and-under girls division at Jekyll hailed from New York, and 20 of the kids needed passports to play. Families from Canada, Mexico, Ecuador, Columbia, Great Britain, Aruba, South Africa, Germany, Russia and the United Arab Emirates braved a barrage of bad Georgia weather and numerous flight delays to get to a two-day tournament where the oldest participant in the field was born the year Tiger Woods turned pro (1996).
These are not your typical top-a-few-shots-and-chase–butterflies kids. Two of the boys had already set competitive records with eight consecutive birdies in tournament play, and two other kids had already carded four competitive holes-in-one before attending their first day of high school. All had trophies at home, and all appeared comfortable with life on the junior tour.
It took Rebecca McGeehan 46 hours to get to the event – three hours in the car from her home to the Frankfurt airport, then delays getting from Germany to Dallas, canceled flights from Dallas to Atlanta, and more delays from Atlanta to Jacksonville. She is 14.
“We play in as many of the U.S. Kids Golf events as possible,” Rebecca’s father, Keith, said. “The competition is so much better over here. Obviously, qualifying for the German nationals is a big thing, but other than that, U.S. Kids golf is a great competitive outlet, and a way to meet other families.”
McGeehan practices four days a week in Germany, hitting balls at a heated driving range. “You can’t play in snow-bound Germany this time of year,” Keith said. “She’s been playing seriously for about five years, and about four years ago we realized that this girl could be quite a good golfer if she wanted to be. There’s a long way to go, obviously. Lots of things can happen in life. All I can do is give her guidance toward her dream of being a pro golfer. That’s what she wants to do, as do all of us, I guess.”
Some want it more than others. The range at the Jekyll Island Club was filled with caddy-fathers (“Daddy Caddies” as they’re known in U.S. Kids Golf parlance), who fancied themselves the next Earl Woods. Unfortunately, their demeanor was closer to Bobby Knight. One father went chair-throwing postal on his daughter during the opening round, berating the young girl far past the point of tears. It was such a scene that other parents filed a formal complaint, and the offending father had to be warned that any further outbursts could result in banishment from future events.
“Yeah, it’s a problem,” said Dewey Crum, chairman of the U.S. Kids Golf Foundation, which is the tournament arm of the company. “You find it everywhere, unfortunately. I’m active in my church, and we have some jerks there, too. But we’re addressing that. We now have a mechanism in place where another parent can tell us if they see someone being disruptive and abusive to a kid.”
Once a complaint has been filed, the boorish father has to take a training course through the Positive Coaching Alliance before he can return to the bag. A second complaint could lead to suspension.
“We’re doing what we can,” Crum said. “We’re touching so many families, and obviously filling such a void in terms of a competitive outlet for these kids. This was obviously a need waiting on a product. There was nothing going on in that 12-and-under range, so people from all over the world found us. I mean, we started with a small database of people who had bought our products, but now we’ve got a database of 125,000 families. We fill these events up, even in this economy. These kids are starving for access to the game. Our mission is to provide that.”
After her travel travails, Rebecca McGeehan battled frost delays and unseasonably cold temperatures to shoot 166 and finish in second place, four shots behind Madison Manning of Thomasville, Ga. “It was okay,” Rebecca’s father said. “We will keep playing, as long as it’s what Rebecca wants. It’s up to her…really.”