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 this week on the Slammer & Squire Course at the World Golf Village in the shadows of the World Golf Hall of Fame further validates that designation. Read along with Reistetter as he recalls the 2011 event and the Mom and Coach behind the WJGS that together are changing the face and heart of Junior Golf worldwide and may produce an Olympic Golfer in the process.
The World Junior Golf Series (WJGS) came back to Northeast 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 they realized a unique way to drive junior golf to higher goals both on and off the golf course.
The 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 Janeiro and then again in 2020.
The last time golf was in the world's biggest athletic event was 112 years ago.
Great players like 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.
Ironically, as Votaw pointed out, 77 players competed back in 1904 in St. Louis, 74 from the U.S.A. and three from Canada, and a Canadian George Lyon won.
Votaw looked out over the sea of young faces and wondered aloud who in the room would aspire, prepare and participate in the Olympics perhaps in 2016, but more likely in 2020.
The former LPGA Commissioner spoke of the high standards and values in golf and the ability for competitors to shake hands and congratulate each other afterwards as he noted the mission of the WJGS.
"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 ten 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).
Susanna, 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 each person was warmly welcomed by the audience.
There were juniors with names like Thailand's Kanan Saksricharoen, Hungary's Csilla Lajtai Rózsa and Iceland's Hjörleifur Bergsteinsson, which showed the rich diversity of the Gate American field.
Dr. Rosswag went on to note "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 each participant that when they are 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 improving the students he teaches but on the tournaments in which they compete.
The WJGS ranks tournaments in addition to 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 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 competitor 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 even 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 six-year-old son 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.
Like the 2016 Olympics, the WJGS embrace 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 puts it as "bringing the love back to the game."
Likely in 3.5 years, we might see one of their WJGS kids as an Olympic athlete in Rio de Janeiro and not be surprised as she or he changes the world in their lifetime like their Mother and Coach have.
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 email at AndyReistetter@gmail.com.
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