COURTESY OF GREG NICHOLS
Greg Nichols, general manager and director of golf at the Ko Olina Golf Club, worked with youngsters during a recent Ko Olina Kidz Club session.
Juniors take big swing
HSJGA aims to keep game affordable for young golfers
THE face of the Hawaii State Junior Association is more than the one that belongs to perhaps its most famous alumna: Michelle Wie.
With a membership of more than 750 juniors (ages 7-18) and 20-plus state-wide tournaments, the HSJGA has more than lived up to its motto of "For the future of the game."
Ironically, one of the HSJGA's co-founders had two children who haven't taken advantage of the programs the organization has to offer. Greg Nichols, the general manager and director of golf at Ko Olina Golf Club, says his two teen-age daughters are "very competitive shoppers."
"I never forced them into it," Nichols said. "They have other interests, such as tennis. But maybe one day they'll catch the bug."
That's how Nichols got into the game, catching the bug, when he was 11. His first time came on a 9-hole public course in Washington, D.C., where he and other young friends waited 3 hours to tee off.
"I fell in love from the beginning," said Nichols, who moved to Hawaii in 1971. "I loved the challenge, the smells of the grass, being outside.
"And there are not that many chances where kids can play an adult's game."
Nichols first became involved in junior golf 10 years prior to the founding of the HSJGA. In 1988, he was asked by the Aloha Section PGA to be the chair of the junior golf committee.
His duties included sitting on the Hawaii Junior Golf Council, where he became very familiar with junior golf and the challenges the youth division was facing. Some were unavoidable, such as Hawaii's geographic isolation, others came up because the organization was run completely on a volunteer basis.
"I know I felt there were many opportunities that were being missed," he said. "And I felt one of the biggest needs was to raise funds."
Nichols, then the pro at Waialae Country Club, was able to help raise money through his affiliation with the then-Hawaiian Airlines Hawaii Open, which was played at Waialae. Through the "Chip In for Junior Golf," tour pros donated thousands of dollars.
About the same time, Pearl Country Club pro David Ishii and PGA pro and then-Hawaii resident Scott Simpson began looking into how to help at the high school level. (Ishii has since sponsored the Hawaii High School Athletic Association's state tournaments through his foundation, which also gives scholarships to graduating high school seniors).
It was suggested to hold a state-wide golf conference, to include all the leaders in the golf community at both the amateur and professional levels. The conference jump-started what became HSJGA, co-founded by Nichols, Mary Bea Porter-King, Norman Asao and Merv Kotake.
The foursome agreed that if junior golf was to be taken to the next level, there had to be a solid vision of the future.
"The No. 1 priority was to provide more opportunities for play as well as education," Nichols said. "I know for me, I enjoy being around the kids, seeing their energy, because it re-energizes my love of golf."
The HSJGA has continued to grow since its inception in 1998. In 2005, the HSJGA qualified 166 junior golfers to compete on the mainland.
This week at the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego, Hawaii has 45 golfers entered in 12 divisions, ages 6-under through 15-17.
A group of 23 will be at next week's Optimist International Junior Championship in Florida.
The biggest obstacle for young golfers continues to be the travel expenses. While HSJGA member fees make up just 5 percent of the income and sponsors give another 5 percent, the cost of teams competing is 22 percent and tournament fees another 38 percent.
The push this year was at the sponsorship level, with Wie donating $50,000, earmarked for a travel scholarship fund to help financially needy members of the HSJGA travel for competition around the state and to the mainland.
The new chair of the fundraising committee is Dean Nowack, a former Hawaii women's volleyball associate coach and ex-golf manufacturer distributor.
"Hawaii didn't just take off recently," Porter-King, president of the HSJGA said. "It's been coming."
A very helpful tool has been the association's Web site: www.hsjga.org. It offers more than just a tournament schedule; there are also comprehensive links to prepare golfers for education, both on the course and in school.
Also, there are links to college info, scholarships and financial aid.
July was designated "Junior Golf Month in Hawaii" by Gov. Linda Lingle. Part of the awareness campaign has been to put ball markers on sale at various courses around the state. Part of the money raised will go to the HSJGA as well as to the junior golf program designated by the participating golf course.
Both Nichols and Porter-King have found that golf is a sport of a lifetime. And it's never too early or late to pick up a club.
"My grandmother didn't start playing until she was 50," Porter-King said. "She continued to play until she died ... at 94."