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Getting youngsters in to golf--let'em hit it hard

Suzie Lee of East Northport tees off at

Suzie Lee of East Northport tees off at hole 16. (July 8, 2010) Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

The secret to getting youngsters to play golf, at a time when the game is losing its grip on kids, might not be in trying to produce the next Tiger Woods. Golf might be better off looking for the next John Daly, or Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson or any other swing-for-the-fences types.

A survey of experts - namely teenage golfers - indicated that what youngsters like most about golf is teeing it up and letting it fly.

"You have to have some natural ability. And you have to see you can hit the ball and hit it far, because that's what gets kids excited about it," said Peter Scialabba, 16, of Oyster Bay, who tied for fourth at the Lessing's American Junior Golf Association Classic on Thursday at Long Island National in Riverhead.

Golfers in the three-day national-caliber event for players between ages 12 and 18 were asked about a National Golf Foundation report that the number of golfers ages 6-17 dropped by nearly one-fourth, from 3.8 million to 2.9 million, between 2005 and 2008. To be sure, the game still has plenty of pull on youth - enough to attract 99 golfers from 15 U.S. states, Canada and Thailand to the Lessing's event.

But those passionate golfers do understand that not everyone their age or younger loves the game as much as they do. They just don't believe it is a hopeless cause. Scialabba and a friend volunteer at Holiday House in Huntington, a camp for underprivileged girls. They bring golf clubs, balls and mats and notice how much the girls enjoy the game once they learn how hard they can hit.

Xander McDonald-Smith, 17, the champion of the 54-hole AJGA event at 6 under par, said interest will grow if young tour pros succeed. "We need more Ishikawas, more McIlroys, so younger kids can look up to somebody," he said, referring to teenagers Ryo Ishikawa and Rory McIlroy, who have won pro tournaments this year.

McDonald-Smith is a long hitter (360-yard drive on his 54th hole this week) who has played in two Champions Tour First Tee pro-ams at Pebble Beach. Watching the U.S. Open last month, he got a kick out of being able to say, "I had that shot . . . I know that putt." He also is a mentor in the First Tee program, working with golfers as young as 7. "They just love to get on the range and hit the ball as far as they can. Once you teach them to do that, they'll love it," he said.

The fact that there is an AJGA, a national tour, is tribute to golf's potential.

"A lot of kids like team sports," said Caroline Araskog, 14, of Locust Valley, adding that she prefers an individual challenge. "Golf kind of depends on yourself and only yourself," she said after having tied for seventh in the girls division.

Courtney Hooton, 16, of Del Mar, Calif., said she started playing golf with plastic clubs when she was 4 and was playing in tournaments by the time she was 5. "I know a lot of players who start that young get burned out, but I've always loved competing. And I love the feeling of winning and all that and it has kept me going," Hooton said after having shot 2-under 69 in the final round to secure a four-shot win - and before rushing with her mom and grandfather to catch a flight home.

Hooton, McDonald-Smith and Araskog all said they were introduced to golf by their grandparents, suggesting that golf can attract the video game generation by relying on the vinyl album generation.

Araskog said that another way to broaden golf's appeal to children is, "Make it not as competitive, just more fun. I love playing in tournaments because I meet all kinds of new people. Then again, I love playing at home with my family, just fooling around."

Suzie Lee of East Northport wasn't looking for a career when, as a 12-year-old in Whitestone, she went with friends to Clearview Golf Course in Bayside. "It was just for fun, to try something new," she said, "and I actually liked it."

Lee quickly became good at it, winning four county high school titles and two state championships for Commack. Next month, she will join the University of South Carolina golf team. Lee acknowledges the sport's downside, such as the 82 she shot in the first round of the Lessing's Classic. "It's pretty stressful," she said, having bounced back to tie for 10th. "Sometimes I think. 'Oh my God, why did I choose this sport?' "

The answer is that she was hooked from day one. "I just liked hitting it far," she said. "I still do."

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