Still Popular, Local Golf Bucks National Decline

By Beacon Staff

In recent years more golfers nationwide have quit the sport than picked it up. But the Flathead Valley has managed to buck that trend. The growing popularity of an after-school program is a clear indication that golf isn’t going to fade here anytime soon.

About 200 students will be participating in a youth program called the Montana Golf Academy (MGA) this year. With the program, kids – many who have never played golf before – will pick up a club and learn not only how to play the game, but also the values and lessons golf instills. The MGA starts the first week of October, with sessions held at eight local schools once a week for five weeks.

Flathead native and Columbia Falls High School graduate Lacy Kersten, who is the assistant golf coach at Flathead High School, started the academy last year out of necessity. There wasn’t a youth program in Kalispell and without such a program, she said it’s difficult to compete against towns like Whitefish that already have well-established youth programs.

“You can’t expect to shoot in the 70s without practicing,” Kersten said.

Along with her husband Mitch, and Village Greens golf pro DJ Guerrero, Kersten takes her mobile camp to the kids. They set up chipping nets, putting mats and targets for kids in the gym, using a rubber composite ball that travels about half the distance of a normal ball. For putting, though, there isn’t a substitute for the feel a real ball gives.

Kids are separated and put into groups based on skill level – not age. They are given a nametag with a watermark of an animal that corresponds with their ability. New golfers start out as “rams” and have the chance over five sessions to advance to the “grizzly bear” or what Kersten calls, “course ready.” Golfers who participated last year and graduated, have a chance to work on their game again this year. Kersten has added “birds of prey” for golfers who are ready for more advanced instruction.

Kersten, 26, who didn’t start playing golf until she was 15 largely because there was no junior program, recently earned an “A” license, the highest obtainable level for instruction in the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

At the MGA, young golfers learn the basics of golf, including swing techniques. But they also learn rules and etiquette, which are vital on the course. Inexperienced golfers often irritate avid course-goers, something Kersten and her crew are trying to change. Understanding pace of play and courtesy, among other things, helps to make the game enjoyable for everybody on the course.

“It’s all about grooming habits young,” Buffalo Hill Golf Course general manager Steve Dunfee said. “You’re less likely to build that muscle memory when you are older.”

A certain “Tiger” would lead many to believe golf’s popularity is on the rise, but nationally the sport’s numbers have been dwindling for years, albeit gradually. Annually, around 3 million golfers quit the sport, while fewer take to the links for the first time.

“It’s been stagnant,” Kersten said. “It’s an industry-wide goal to get it moving again.”

Golf, however, remains popular in the Flathead. Tourism dollars in the form of greens’ fees are adding up in the valley, where there are nine courses available to the public. At Buffalo Hill Golf Course, Dunfee said the number of Canadian golfers this year has been substantially higher than in the past. The number of young golfers has been solid as well, he said, which has been true for the past 10 years.

Each MGA session is one hour long, for kids from kindergarten through sixth grade, and the academy costs $75. Students who participated last year will pay $65, the same price a family with more than one golfer would pay. This year there will be two five-week camps before Christmas, including the one in October, and two after New Year’s Day.

Scholarships are available for kids who can’t afford the academy and Kersten is still looking for a couple more coaches to fill out her staff. To register, or for more information, call Kersten at (406) 451-4631.