BIRMINGHAM, ALABAMA | As you wander through the Country Club of Birmingham’s meandering 120,000-square-foot clubhouse, signs of a bustling junior golf program can’t be missed. In a room adjacent to the golf shop, two prominent boards list the respective winners of the Boys’ and Girls’ Junior Club Championship, which dates to 1929 for the boys and 1950 for the girls. The late Hubert Green, the two-time major champion and World Golf Hall of Famer who grew up in a home overlooking the facility’s famous Donald Ross-designed West course, has his name on the board three times. If you then go through the men’s locker room and climb the stairs to reach the main dining area, you will find a trophy room for Green that celebrates his upbringing at the club and his many subsequent accomplishments. Near it is a cleverly displayed collection of Alabama Amateur winners connected to the club. Four-time champion Sam “King” Farlow, a longtime member who grew up at the club, is featured among many celebrated victors.
But the real showstopper, as hard as it is to believe, is not about Green. It’s in a pair of photos down the hall that are normal at first glance but extraordinary upon further study. In the first, a group of 51 participants is shown gathered in front of the clubhouse for the 2003 Junior Club Championship. In the second, there is a small village of 242 junior golfers gathered in front of a different area of the clubhouse for the 2021 Junior Club Championship. They had to switch spots because there wouldn’t have been enough space to get them all into one photo had they chosen the previous location.
It’s indicative of the transformation that’s taken place here at a private club that decided a middling junior program was not sufficient. In its place is something unprecedented at this kind of facility: roughly 350-400 kids are now involved at some level of a complex junior operation that boasts more layers than a wedding cake.
“In an unofficial straw poll amongst my peers across the country, we can ‘unofficially officially’ say we’ve got the largest junior program at a private club,” said Eric Eshleman, the club’s director of golf.
When Eshleman took over in the early 2000s, the junior program could be described as an afterthought. Quality players had come through over the years, as evidenced by Green and Farlow, but that was more a matter of the club’s overall reputation within the Magic City. Eshelman wanted to build a program that not only would develop young men and women into great golfers who understood the value of the game, but also encourage lifetime membership. It’s Eshleman’s belief that by keeping junior golf as the “North Star” for the club, about 80 percent of the participants eventually will come back to become members as adults. And if they do, it’s likely those new members will want their kids involved with golf at the club.
“It’s really all encompassing,” Eshleman said. “We want to create lifetime golfers. They will definitely be single-digit handicaps with great fundamentals. They can play for club championships and love the game all their lives.”
He started all of this simply by creating a junior golf committee and junior golf chairman, positions where parents of participating children are able to bridge the gap between the golf professional staff and the membership, which consists of more than 1,400 families. As part of that collaboration between the golf staff and the families, significant rule changes were made to the course’s accessibility. Juniors are now allowed to make weekday tee times before 11:30 a.m. and after 2 p.m., and they can play after 2 p.m. on weekends as well. In order to play the West course, they must be able to shoot 89 or better from the members’ tees while also completing an exam that covers USGA and club rules.
“Over the years, the membership has gained trust in the juniors because we have so many talented and respectful kids. The culture is that they’re one in the same with the adult members. We really hold them to a high standard.” – Chris Biggins
Once they turn 10 years old, junior golfers can play without the supervision of a parent. This is rare for a private club of C.C. of Birmingham’s stature – keep in mind that the club has hosted three USGA championships in the past nine years, including the U.S. Amateur Four-Ball earlier this month. Junior golfers at the club have nearly unfettered access, every day of the week, to 36 holes across two classic layouts.
Chris Biggins, the director of player development at the club, is the man credited with pouring a ton of passion and leadership into junior golf at the club in recent years. Biggins started at Birmingham in 2012 as a professional golf management intern from Methodist University, and three years later he was hired as an assistant professional who has been instrumental in leading the gargantuan junior program.
We will need a lot of space to cover all of the different ways Biggins has impacted the juniors. There is PGA Junior League, the team-based program that is golf’s equivalent of Little League baseball. Biggins also implemented a fall Junior Ryder Cup event in which 50 of the top juniors at the club are split into two groups – it may not quite be the Iron Bowl between Alabama and Auburn, but a friendly rivalry has formed. There are also seven separate week-long junior camps for ages 7-9 at which kids are allowed two hours on the golf course, with a member of the golf staff supervising each group. Any kid who completes one of the camps is allowed to come back during any of the other weeks to play in that time period. The clinics aren’t all about golf, however; a major focus is on playing different games such as kickball and dodgeball that encourage the kids to be athletes. Fundamentals of the swing are taught, but it’s all about allowing the kids to let their own instincts take over.
The environment that is cultivated is fun yet respectful.
“Over the years, the membership has gained trust in the juniors because we have so many talented and respectful kids,” Biggins said. “The culture is that they’re one in the same with the adult members. We really hold them to a high standard. It’s a really big job of mine that when they are ages 7 to 9 that we prepare them to be ready when they turn 10 to be able to go play by themselves and not hold up play or be disruptive. If we lose that, then obviously we lose the privileges and the membership’s faith in us.”
Once the kids get older, there are other opportunities. Biggins recently launched a CCB golf team with two squads, one ages 10-14 and the other ages 15-18. The team is for serious players who have a desire to play college golf and beyond, so it’s run similarly to a college golf team. There is a full schedule of clinics, season-long points standings, focused practice with top-level instructors and ample amount of time on the course. Biggins goes out and plays with the kids on “No-Feedback Fridays” when he doesn’t help any of the players and just observes their games, storing that information for the following week’s practice. And then on “Dogfight Sundays,” the kids compete against one another. There are also interclub matches in which the kids travel to notable clubs throughout the area to compete.
Their talent and depth is difficult for anyone else to match. C.C. of Birmingham claims seven alumni who are on Division I golf teams, including Vanderbilt’s outstanding freshman Gordon Sargent (No. 14 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and a first-team All-SEC selection this season), Mississippi State senior Ford Clegg (a first-team All-SEC pick in 2021) and Auburn sophomore Ryan Eshleman, Eric Eshleman’s son.
There are more on the way, too.
“We have a huge batch of juniors ages 13 through 18,” Biggins said. “Right now they’re shooting for college scholarships. I believe we’re going to have upwards of 15 players get college scholarships in the next five, six years.”
All from one club. And this isn’t IMG Academy where players from all over the world are coming with the sole purpose of getting better at golf. It’s just a private club in Alabama with local kids organically coming through the pipeline.
Developing talented players is a priority, but it’s not anywhere near the same level as the desire to have kids love the game of golf. That might be why there are so many high-level players who come out of the club. The passion is there before everything else.
“Our retention happens by making them have a blast,” Biggins said. “So we keep them here by making them good and making them enjoy playing well, and if they have aspirations of being competitors, or if they just want to be everyday golfers, we cater to that as well. The goal isn’t for them all to earn college scholarships.
“The main goal is for them to be golfers for life.”
Photos: Courtesy Country Club of Birmingham
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