Junior PGA team hitting the links

There is a new team hitting the golf course this summer, with a group of local boys and girls ages 9-13 playing out of Whitney Farms Golf Course in Monroe.

For the first time, Whitney Farms fielded a squad in the Junior PGA Golf League, giving players from Monroe, Shelton and Newtown a chance to compete competitively with players in their own age group from across the state.

“It’s all across the US,” the team’s coach, Chris Gueli, said. “This year, we are lucky enough to start a program here.”

Gueli, a teacher and the girls golf head coach at Masuk High School, helped form the team at Whitney Farms, along with course owner James Bargas and course pro Paul McGuire.

“Jimmy Bargas and Paul McGuire, they got the ball rolling,” Gueli said. “They let us go out on the course, hit balls on the range. The program is to initiate kids into the game of golf. They play in two-man scrambles. Not only does it work on their golf skills, it teaches them a little bit about teamwork.”

So far, Whitney Farms has compiled a record of four wins, two losses and one draw.

This weekend, the team edged New Haven Country Club, 7-5, on Saturday, before dropping a 9 1/2 - 2 1/2 decision to Great River of Milford.

The playing format is unique, with two-man teams playing nine holes — with every three holes divided into “flags.”

“You play the first three holes, that's called a flag. If you win that, you win a flag,” Gueli said.  “They don't have to worry about hitting a bad shot. There really is no pressure. We are here to teach them, to get them to learn some of the rules and etiquette of the game. Hopefully, it'll be something they want to stick with.”

While golf is usually an individual sport sometimes played by teams, this setup provides the players an atmosphere conducive to learning. It’s also an alternative to traditional golf lessons, provided by an instructor.

“The lessons can get a little boring,” Bargas said. “This way, they can relate to kids their own age. They can talk about chipping, putting, equipment… It gives them a little more competition to it.”

Playing in a PGA-sanctioned league also teaches the young players about the many rules in golf. According to the PGA Junior League website, it began as a pilot program in four markets and has expanded ever since.

“They are learning the proper procedure and etiquette,” Bargas said.

Getting young players on the course is an important to Bargas, as many of Whitney Farms’ frequent players were looking for a way to get their children involved with the sport.

“We have a lot of people who play here all the time,” Bargas said. “They want to have their children involved in some kind of golf. One thing led to another, we contacted the PGA with their junior program and we decided to do it.”

That, and the fact Whitney Farms did not have much of a youth-team presence, created a perfect storm.

“We are privately owned public golf course,” Bargas said. “We have a lot of people in our men’s club but we didn't have a real good youth program. We decided to see what we could put together and get it going.”

On short notice, Whitney Farms put together an 11-member team that has fared well in league play. The hope is to add players heading into next summer.

“It's a great way to get kids started in this sport,” Gueli said. “Hopefully, we'll get some new players for the years to come. Hopefully, the word will get out and we'll get some more players and expand this and get as many young kids exposed to the game as possible.”