A Golf Star is Born

By Beacon Staff

Teigan Avery is well spoken, but when it comes to her golf game, the numbers speak for themselves.

Avery is 12 years old, drives the ball 250 yards and has already shot in the 70s. She has won two consecutive Montana State Golf Association junior titles and recently won the Montana Junior State Championship in Helena by 16 strokes. And, perhaps most remarkable, she’s only been playing golf for four summers.

There is no other 12-year-old girl in Montana in Avery’s league, though a 13-year-old from Billings gives her a run for her money at tournaments. And while Avery already dreams of going to Duke University, which has one of the best women’s golf programs in the nation, for now she has to focus on her upcoming seventh-grade year at St. Matthew’s Catholic School in Kalispell.

Alice Ritzman, a local youth golf coach who spent two decades on the LPGA Tour, said Avery is a rare talent.

“She is just one of those exceptional kids that comes around now and then,” Ritzman said. “Her golf age is older than her chronological age.”

Teigan Avery lines up a put on the first green on the Cameron Nine at Buffalo Hill Golf Course in Kalispell.

When Avery was 9 years old, her mother, Leila, bought her and her father, Jerad, season passes to Big Mountain Golf Course. Jerad was a recreational golfer, but Teigan had only hit three buckets of balls – at most – at the driving range in her whole life before she played her first round that summer. Her first round turned out to be landmark, and it started with an injury to Jerad.

The father-and-daughter duo began the round without warming up first and Jerad promptly pulled a muscle. Not wanting to dampen Teigan’s enthusiasm, Jerad volunteered to caddy. And by doing so, he said he was able to truly observe his daughter play, instead of being distracted by his own game. He watched as she smoothly executed full swings and made consistent contact, without any prior training.

It was apparent that Teigan had the magic. Jerad then knew his primary concern wasn’t how he could keep her from holding people up on the course, but instead how he could help nurture her gift.

“I often wonder if I didn’t get hurt if I would have realized she had a knack for this,” Jerad, a school counselor at Glacier High School, said.

Jerad went straight to work, scouring the Internet for information on how to develop young golfers. Once he found the site for U.S. Kids Golf, he said much of his searching was over.

“That was a real blessing for us to stumble upon that,” Jerad said. “That was kind of the key.”

From the U.S. Kids Golf website, the Averys learned the importance of selecting appropriately sized clubs for kids, having them tee off at different distances from the green depending on their age and other tidbits that helped build both Teigan’s game and confidence.

Golf can be a frustrating game, particularly for a 9-year-old. Jerad said if Teigan was hitting from the adult women’s tees and using long clubs when she started, “it could have been a disaster; it really could have turned her off from the game.”

“It’s important to give kids the confidence that they can get on the green in a reasonable number of shots,” Jerad said.

A website can only do so much, however. The other key to Teigan’s rapid development was mentorship, from both Ritzman and family friend Jim Schaible. Jerad said Schaible worked diligently with Teigan on her fundamentals, ensuring that her golf career began with a solid foundation instead of a shaky base of bad habits, as is the case with many golfers.

She parlayed those fundamentals into a formidable long game. Avery averages about 220 yards on her drives, though it’s not rare for her to exceed 250. She said she often outdrives her opponents at tournaments by 50 yards.

“That kind of gives me an advantage,” she said.

While Ritzman acknowledges that Avery “hits it well beyond her age,” she said the 12-year-old’s foremost strength is her ability to identify her weaknesses and then improve them. Ritzman, who has worked with Avery the past couple of years, said the young golfer’s work ethic is incredible.

The early morning sun casts the shadow of Teigan Avery across the fairway as she walks toward her ball while golfing at Buffalo Hill Golf Course in Kalispell.

“She just appears to have that natural ability to be able to figure out what she needs to do to get better,” Ritzman said. “(Former two-time high school state champion) Larry Iverson, he had that same thing. You didn’t have to tell him to practice, you just kind of steered him along.

“They figure out a lot of it on their own – Larry did it and Teigan can do it.”

Avery is working hard to improve her short game. With Montana’s limited golf season, it can be hard to hone one’s touch on and around the green. In the winter, Teigan hits balls into a net in her basement. But without flags, or a real green, it’s difficult to judge chipping and putting.

“That’s why her long game is so much more mature,” Jerad said.

In the summer, she plays five days a week, generally at Buffalo Hill Golf Course in Kalispell. She only plays two or three rounds; the rest of her time is devoted to practicing specific skills. While her dad’s 18-hole score still hovers around 100, Avery now averages in the 80s.

There is a relatively low number of young girl golfers in Montana, with more joining the sport once they reach high school. Both the Averys and Ritzman would like to see more. Ritzman, who said youth golf is in decline nationwide, believes Avery can inspire more girls to take up the sport in Montana.

Ritzman knows about opening doors, as she helped pave the way for other LPGA golfers from the Treasure State, such as Leslie Spalding.

“She’ll pull other people along,” Ritzman said. “Every girl that came after me said it’s because I came first and gave them incentive. I think other girls, even younger than Teigan, they’ll see what she’s doing and want to do that also.”

And as good as Avery is now, Ritzman believes an even brighter future awaits her – if she wants it.

“It’ll be her choice, which is what I tell parents,” Ritzman said. “It’s one thing to be able to be good at a young age, but if someone is going to go on, it will be up to her.”

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