Golf Writer Andy Reistetter lives in the Golf Capital of the World. Northeast Florida is normally known as the home of the PGA TOUR and THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass and the World Golf Hall of Fame. Now a World Junior Golf Series event staged on the Ocean Course at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club further validates that designation. Read along with Reistetter as he discovers the event and the Mom and Coach behind it that together are changing the face and heart of Junior Golf worldwide.
The World Junior Golf Series (WJGS) found a permanent home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, with the playing of the 2011 Gate American Junior, a three-round competition that ended two days before Christmas.
America's "strongest junior event" came of age in its third rendition featuring 15 nations, 74 golfers and an organization with leaders determined to change the experience of junior golf.
It all started 10 years ago in Germany with a mother seeking to improve the junior golf experience of her son.
Then an American coach worked with her son, and together mom and the coach came up with a unique way to drive junior golf to higher goals both on and off the golf course.
The Gate American Junior was the last of four WJGS events staged in 2011. The other three were in Germany, South Africa, and Poland.
Overall, the best juniors in the world from 27 countries have competed, and there are plans to add six more events to the schedule.
Truly a world initiative, only 12 of the 74 golfers were from the United States, and the U.S. did not have the largest contingent of players. That distinction went to Germany, with 17 golfers.
The PGA TOUR's Ty Votaw gave the keynote speech at the Opening Ceremony.
Votaw is the person who led an international delegation that recently gained consensus to get golf back in the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janiero and then again in 2020.
The last time golf was in the world's biggest athletic event was 112 years ago.
Great players such as Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Tom Watson and Greg Norman did not have an opportunity to play in the Olympics.
Votaw pointed out that 77 players competed back in 1904 in St. Louis, 74 from the U.S. and three from Canada. A Canadian, George Lyon, won.
Votaw looked out over the sea of young faces and wondered aloud who in the room would aspire to prepare for and participate in the Olympics, perhaps in 2016 but more likely in 2020.
Noting the mission of the WJGS, the former LPGA Commissioner spoke of the high standards and values in golf, and how competitors shake hands and congratulate each other afterward.
"I have great respect for what the WJGS is doing, not only in terms of providing top-flight competition for junior players from around the world, but doing it in such a way that it benefits you (the junior golfer) to the fullest so that you are reminded in everything you do of the inherent values that golf brings to your lives, and you make our sport better by living those values every single day."
The mother in this story is Dr. Susanna Rosswag from Germany, also affectionately known as "she that must be obeyed."
The coach who came to the aid of the mother's son was Ponte Vedra Beach's own Tom Burnett, whose namesake Golf Academy is located in Northeast Florida at the St. Johns Golf & Country Club.
The link that happened over 10 years ago between the Mom and the Coach was Warren Jacklin, son of World Golf Hall of Famer Tony Jacklin.
Warren and Tom met each other and played golf together at nearby Florida State College at Jacksonville (FSCJ).
Dr. Rosswag, born in Hungary, honored the junior competitors at the Opening Ceremonies by noting that each one of them is a winner already.
She then impeccably pronounced each name to ensure that each person was warmly welcomed by the audience.
There were juniors with names such as Thailand's Kanan Saksricharoen, Hungary's Csilla Lajtai Rozsa, and Iceland's Hjorleifur Bergsteinsson, which showed the rich diversity of the Gate American field.
Dr. Rosswag went on to note that "this is a competition which asks you to perform to your very best because you are competing among the best, but the real competition is from within yourself."
She urged all the participants, when walking the fairways together, to enjoy each other's company and to make friends, because "having friends in the world is the best insurance in life."
Coach Burnett is as passionate as Mother Susanna when it comes to improving junior golf.
His focus is not only on improving the students he teaches but on the tournaments in which they compete.
The WJGS ranks tournaments as well as players.
All this happened with the input of Steve Mona, the CEO of the World Golf Foundation, the nonprofit organization that runs the First Tee, Golf 20/20 and the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Tournaments are ranked for their demonstrated commitment to the WJGS player-centric, holistic and unifying philosophy, and not the strength of their field.
Simply put, the WJGS wants to develop junior golfers both as athletes and as future leaders.
Key tournament criteria are inclusion of girls and boys (ages 12 to 19), high community involvement in terms of volunteer-to-player ratio, and no charges to the competitors for golf fees, meals and accommodations.
In addition, no more than 65 percent of the participants can come from the host country, and at least nine countries must be represented.
The kids attend educational seminars on life skills, health, nutrition, mental and physical fitness, and college selection.
Burnett's holistic approach includes the involvement of his family in running the tournament. His wife, Jennifer, was inside the media center, while his father-in-law and 11-year-old daughter were taking scores at the 18th green.
Most delightful and entertaining was his youngest, a 6-year-old son, who was seeking balls on the range and hitting some great shots amidst the world's best junior golfers.
As Burnett puts it, "If you run the best tournaments, then the best kids will come."
By the way, the best college coaches came from everywhere—California, Texas, the Midwest—to see these juniors play golf.
The 2012 Gate American Junior was personally hosted by Herb Peyton at his world-class Ponte Vedra Inn & Club Resort.
Peyton, a larger-than-life figure in the Jacksonville area and nearly 80 years old at the time, briefly addressed the youngsters at the Opening Ceremonies.
In his youthful manner, the founder of Gate Petroleum pointed out that the juniors may have a better golf game than his, but there was one talent he had that they did not possess.
He then demonstrated that talent by "whistling without moving his mouth," much to the delight and amusement of the youngsters.
Even Votaw noted that he never would have imagined witnessing such a thing when he woke up that morning.
Like the 2016 Olympics, the WJGS embraces female and male golfers playing on the same golf course. In Ponte Vedra Beach, there were 27 girls and 47 boys competing in the Gate American Junior.
Austria's Marina Stuetz shot a one-under 71 on the final day to hold off Denmark's Nicole Broch Larsen and win the girls' title.
The boys' event featured an exciting finish, with America's Cody Proveaux winning over Poland's Adrian Meronk with a birdie on the third hole of a sudden-death playoff.
As the Mother puts it, the WJGS is "running tournaments with love."
The Coach adds that it is "bringing the love back to the game."
In four-and-a-half years, we might see one of their WJGS kids as an Olympic athlete in Rio de Janiero, and we shouldn't be surprised if she or he changes the world in their lifetime, just as Mother Rosswag and Coach Burnett have.
Find more information on the WJGS at http://www.wjgs.org.
Andy Reistetter is a freelance golf writer as well as a Spotter, Research and Broadcast Assistant for The Golf Channel, NBC and CBS Sports. He spends time on all four major American golf tours- the PGA TOUR, Champions, Nationwide and LPGA Tours.
Reistetter resides within two miles of the PGA TOUR headquarters and home of The PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach.
A lifetime golfer, Andy enjoys volunteering at the World Golf Hall of Fame and THE PLAYERS while pursuing his passion for the game of golf and everything associated with it. He can be reached by e-mailing him at AndyReistetter@gmail.com
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