Stoneybrook Hosts Tournament for Young Golfers

Michael Allen isn’t ashamed to admit he gets beat by his 12-year-old son in golf.

“I’m an avid hacker — he’s a better golfer than I am,” says the Stoneybrook resident.

His son, Christian, is a rising seventh grader at Three Oaks Middle School, who is excited to play in the upcoming Nolan Henke-Patty Berg Junior Masters Golf Tournament. It’s the first time this Junior Golf ranked tournament will be hosted at Stoneybrook Golf Club — Christian’s “home course.”

“This is the main tour for kids in this area,” notes tournament director Bobby Conway, who also is assistant pro at Stoneybrook. “It’s the only tournament in Southwest Florida that will be three days.”

This year marks the silver anniversary for the Junior Masters, which was started 25 years ago by three-time PGA tournament winner and Fort Myers resident Nolan Henke (currently on the Senior PGA Tour), along with Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) founding member and Hall of Fame inductee Patty Berg, who died in 2006.

The Junior Masters is open to young golfers from around the world, attracting top competition from the east coast of Florida as well as golfers from Australia, Japan, Switzerland and several other countries. Scheduled for July 26-28 and open to the public, the Junior Masters is sponsored by the Southwest Florida Junior Golf Association. Each summer, SWFJGA runs a tournament series, which includes weekly 9-hole and 18-hole tournaments for kids ages 8 to 18, hosted at various area golf courses.

“Sixteen local country clubs are donating their courses,” notes SWFJGA board member Don Radcliff, whose daughter, Richlyn, is a Junior Golfer. “It’s cool how the clubs and the members get involved. Some drive shuttles or have lunch for the kids. And the kids get to play different courses.”

For the upcoming Junior Masters, young golfers from Estero are excited to have home-course advantage. Stoneybrook boasts a par-72 course designed by Jed Azinger and Gordy Lewis which includes the challenging, four-hole stretch known as “Talon’s Grip.” Junior Golfer Luke Farmer estimates he’s played Stoneybrook more than 1,000 times.

“I’m not really nervous because it’s on my home course,” says the standout golfer from Estero High School. The team practices at Stoneybrook, a course Farmer started playing at age three.

“Luke was ‘News-Press Player of the Year’ and finished third in the state,” boasts Stoneybrook General Manager and Head Golf Professional Jeff Nixon, who is also president of the SWFJGA Board. A rising senior at Estero, Farmer now helps teach younger golfers as a camp counselor at Stoneybrook during the summer.

Michael Allen is among the parents who credit Stoneybrook’s Junior Golf program with boosting their children’s skills as well as their enthusiasm for the sport.

“Stoneybrook has established a really unique environment for learning at all levels,” Allen says. “They have the ability to grow the game of golf due to their willingness to make it affordable to families.”

Stoneybrook offers Junior Golf lessons year-round for about $60 a month, notes Nixon. During the summer, there are golf camps for kids ages 4-14, and the SWFJGA Summer Tournament Program is just $133 for eight tournaments, plus a banquet. Both SWFJGA and Stoneybrook Junior Golf are registered nonprofits accepting donations and sponsorships. Additionally, SWFJGA has awarded more than $268,000 in college scholarships to young golfers since its inception in 1974.

“We wanted to create a situation where, at a lower price, we could offer an experience similar to what they have at top level golf academies,” explains Nixon.

Christopher Payne says he appreciates how golf teaches his son values like honesty, perseverance and respect. Dalton Payne, 12, started golfing four years ago and is a product of Stoneybrook’s development program. He’s won a couple SWFJGA tournaments and is excited about competing in the upcoming Junior Masters.

“It’s fun to see a lot of younger people who like the sport,” Dalton says of the tournament experience.

Kelli Kragh, a member of the Estero High School Golf team who first picked up a club at age three, says the Junior Masters is one of her favorite events of the year. Despite media hype that “golf is dying,” Kragh sees enthusiasm for the sport growing among youth.

“I like the competitiveness of it,” she says of her continued interest in the game. “I like setting goals for myself and seeing how far I’ve come. The life skills you learn from it can carry outside of the golf course.”

Six-year-old Nina Santiago is just beginning to learn the rules of the game. She listens intently as Conway coaches her on lining up her shot, then takes a couple practice swings before driving the ball with near-perfect form. She’s expected to be a “future top performer.”

“I like to play with golf clubs,” she says simply, “and it gives me something to do.”

Like Nina, Deanna Rodino’s daughter, Talia, got her first set of clubs at age four. Talia is now an eighth grader and is playing tournament golf competitively.

“Golf is great for kids; it’s one of those games that teaches them a lot about life — discipline, honesty and challenging themselves,” Rodino says. “It’s a great golf community around here. They have the best Junior Golf program going!”

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