At the recent Montana State Junior championships, the leader board was crowded with golfers from Northwest Montana.
Dominating the top five in nearly every boys age division, and winning one girls division, were young golfers from Kalispell, Bigfork, Whitefish and Libby. But this wasn’t a fluke. Rather it’s the norm, and has been for some time.
“Junior golf has been really strong in the Flathead Valley for years and years and years, going back to the 60s,” said Marlin Hanson, a golf professional at Buffalo Hill Golf Course who participated in his course’s junior clinics decades ago and now helps instruct them.
“We’ve always been producing state and regional champions here in the valley,” he added.
Northwest Montana’s junior golfers regularly place high at summer tournaments, or win them. Then when they come of age, they often make runs at high school state titles.
Whitefish High School, in Terry Nelson’s 26 years as head coach, has won 15 girls state titles and nine boys championships. Glacier High School has also emerged as a powerhouse. The Wolfpack boys won the Class AA title in 2007 and have been contenders since.
Much credit can be given to local youth instructors and golf courses that donate their facilities for both junior clinics and tournaments. The clinics are generally free or have a minimal cost.
Nelson, in addition to coaching the high school team, runs a summer junior program at Whitefish Lake Golf Club, which he said regularly attracts 50-60 kids of all ages. A recent clinic at Buffalo Hill Golf Club drew about 75 students.
Quality instruction beginning at a young age has proven invaluable for Flathead Valley kids once they reach high school and for those who pursue golf after graduation, in college, as a career or as a lifelong hobby.
“The purpose is to get as many kids involved in golf and build a feeder program for the next generation,” Nelson said.
In addition to the clinics, the Flathead Valley Junior Tour hosts a full schedule of tournaments, culminating this year in the Aug. 11 championship at Eagle Bend. Those tournaments help the golfers prepare for statewide tourneys.
The valley also has a strong base of experienced instructors who take young golfers under their wing and provide more individualized instruction.
Alice Ritzman, who earned more than $1 million on the LPGA Tour, said she works with juniors who have developed skills at the clinics and tournaments and now want to take their game to the next level.
“When they get to a certain level and they want a little more personalized instruction, they find their way to me,” Ritzman said.
Among Ritzman’s protégées is 13-year-old Teigan Avery, who has dominated her age division the past three years, often winning statewide tournaments by double-digit strokes. At this year’s junior championship on June 20-21, she shot 78 and 79 to win the 13-under division.
“She’s a special player,” Ritzman said. “And to think of her as only 13 years old.”
Last year, Avery won the overall women’s title at Buffalo Hill’s annual Labor Day tournament, which draws a large field of top amateur golfers from around the state and Canada.
“It’s not very often that a 12-year wins the Labor Day tournament,” Hanson said. “Actually, I shouldn’t say not very often – that’s never happened.”
Even with stars like Avery, it’s widely known that junior golf is far less prevalent among girls than boys throughout Montana, though Whitefish High School’s success proves the valley has historically had a strong youth base.
There is currently a large contingent of talented boys golfing in the region right now. Out of the three age divisions at the state junior championships, three of the top five boys in 13-under were from Northwest Montana, while two of the top five in both the 14-15 and 16-17 age divisions were Flathead Valley golfers, including 14-15 champion Arthur Doorn of Whitefish.
All seven of those golfers shot both rounds in the 70s, except for Glacier High School’s Ryan Porch. He shot a first-round 66 and followed it up with a 76. Even the three golfers under 13 played in the 70s.
“Golf courses realize those juniors are going to be our future members in 10-15 years,” Hanson said. “Out of every junior program you get a few that excel and play competitively. Then there are others who learn the game and don’t play competitively, but they play it for the rest of their lives.”
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