FOX CHAPEL, Pa. — We’ve all had to make adjustments and accommodations in 2020. Our youth have been no exception.
Some had to forgo graduation ceremonies and parties, while others had sports camps and vacations cancelled. And that’s not even counting those who fell ill or had their families’ budgets affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But golf has been a haven this summer for those of us who love to play it, and that was certainly the case over the several weeks that contained Tri-State PGA Isaly’s Junior Tour events.
The annual summer circuit lost three events in early July due to a spike in cases in Allegheny County, but considering the circumstances of this strangest of years, playing 14 tournaments in less than two months qualifies as a success.
“Other than the missed events, it’s been really, really good,” said Tri-State PGA official Steve Sinning, who just wrapped up his fifth year in charge of the day-to-day operation of the tour.
“The courses have been really good establishing the social-distance guidelines. I think everyone understood that if you don’t do it, it could quickly come to an end. Knock on wood, no health issues or impact of the virus.”
I spoke to Sinning last Wednesday near the 18th green at the tony Pittsburgh Field Club, the host venue for the tour’s season-ending Player of the Year Championship. He was minutes away from MC’ing the awards ceremony following the conclusion of the day’s competition.
Out of precaution, the Tri-State PGA didn’t put on ceremonies for the first 13 tournaments, but an exception was made for the summer’s biggest prize.
“It’s unfortunate we couldn’t recognize a kid after the round or give them a plaque,” Sinning said. “That part stinks a little bit, but that’s not why we’re here. It’s better than not playing.”
No argument there, especially on what was an unseasonably-pleasant, brilliantly-sunny day on the links. Add in a competitive round on one of the best-conditioned courses in the area, and it’s quite the reward for the dozens who qualified, divided into five brackets by age and gender.
“I love the staff and everyone that works here,” said Erie native Natalie Brosig, who finished fifth in the girls’ age 17-18 season-long standings despite playing in just five events.
“The yardages aren’t too bad and they’re usually good courses, too. I know all these girls, so it’s always fun.”
Camaraderie amongst the competitors is a focus of the tour, which has been sponsored by Pittsburgh corporate staple Isaly’s for the past three years.
“Our whole tour is developmental,” said Tri-State PGA executive director/CEO David Wright. “It teaches the core fundamentals of golf. Making new friends. Being in charge of your own game. The integrity of the game. You learn honesty. It’s just you and a little white ball out there. It’s a great way to start, a great way to learn core values.
“I’m very relieved and I’m thrilled that we were able to allow the kids to get out of the house and play golf … to get back to some semblance of normalcy.”
Isaly’s owner Jim Conroy is a member at the Field Club, so it helps to have connections, too. Those same principles mentioned by Wright also played a role in getting Isaly’s involved in the first place.
“We feel very strongly that golf is an important tool for kids to learn life lessons, things like integrity and accountability and responsibility, when you’re out there on the course by yourself,” Isaly’s marketing boss Jennifer Gregg told me. “We had the opportunity to partner with the junior tour and it seemed like a really great fit.”
A couple of last week’s younger winners might beg to differ in one way, as they were barely able to poke their heads above the oversized pint of Isaly’s ice cream set up next to the scorer’s table.
Not that that minor bit of visual comedy put a damper on the thrill of victory.
“This is my first year playing the tour,” said a beaming Connor Walker, moments after rallying to snag the boys’ 15-16 Player of the Year trophy. “It’s friendly. I like it. I was playing U.S. Kids’ Golf before and this was the next thing we saw to get into.”
The winner of the youngest boys bracket, ages 11-14, was a little more serious about what got him into competitive golf, but no less passionate.
“It’s all you,” said an earnest David Fuhrer II, from underneath his flat-billed cap. “In other sports you have to rely on teammates. Here, it’s all you. You have to own up to your mistakes. It’s what makes you better.”
Brosig struck a similar self-reliant tone after her 5-over-par 78 was good for second place at the Field Club.
“I’ve been playing ever since I was little,” said the college-golf hopeful. “I like that when you work at it, you get better.”
Of course, the players in the final event of the year are some of the best competitors in the region, but the theme of improvement rings true for the adults who put on the tour year after year.
“What’s really cool is seeing the kids, some who start (on tour) at 11 years old, then all of a sudden they’re 16,” Sinning said. “Seeing the progression of their game, how much they’re dedicated to their craft and how much they improve.
“Sometimes you see kids at 12 and think they could be really, really good, but they sorta lose interest. And then you see people really work at it and get really, really good.”
These youngsters are facing some unprecedented challenges, both socially and educationally. At least they were able to pursue something athletically this summer that — unless you brought out the magnifying glass; hello, personal bunker rakes! — looked really similar to any other year on the Isaly’s Tour.
In fact, COVID-19 is directly responsible for at least one improvement in tournament efficiency. With hard scorecards tossed aside to avoid excessive sharing of materials, players entered their scores hole by hole on a smartphone app, which not only allowed for loved ones and coaches to follow the action remotely, but also enabled live TV ‘leaderboards’ to be placed on course at the Field Club.
But the biggest benefit of giving young golfers this competitive outlet was the most traditional benefit, espoused by golfers for generations: Character-building.
Hey, in a year like this, we could all use a little more grit.
“Certainly the perseverance aspect of it is big,” Sinning said. “It’s a very difficult game. It’s difficult for the pros. It’s even more difficult when you’re 15 years old, pushing your cart up the hills at the Pittsburgh Field Club.
“It’s exhausting, but also rewarding, as well.”
We can only hope to say the same thing once we get through our current crisis.