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Youth golf enjoys boom since '02 Open at Bethpage

Bethpage High School senior James Lichtenberger had played baseball, hockey and other sports, but after the U.S. Open came to his hometown in 2002, he picked up a golf club for the first time.

"I loved it," Lichtenberger, 17, said. "You can't be perfect at it. You can go out every day and still have something you have to work on and you never get bored with it."

Youth golf for students like Lichtenberger has steadily grown in popularity since the last time Tiger Woods and the rest of the pro tour came to Bethpage. And as the 2009 U.S. Open rolls into Long Island this week, it continues to capture the attention of students. In 2006-07, 1,924 Long Island public high school students were playing golf, up more than 6.5 percent from 2002-03, according to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association. Statewide, nearly 10,000 were playing, up more than 300 since the U.S. Open was last played on the Bethpage Black.

Tiger Woods is one of the main reasons for the jump, Long Island golf coaches say. "You see Tiger Woods on television and Tiger promoting the game," said Lindenhurst coach Lou Yampiro. And at Locust Valley High School, two players sport tiger head covers on their clubs, mimicking the hallmark Tiger Woods covers.

Also, Locust Valley's varsity girls golf coach Doug Notti said it's one of the few sports that a family can play together and he has seen an increasing interest among girls. He said that every year he has another two or three girls who want to join the women's team, which now has 10 members.

"You can throw a baseball with your child, but you can't play baseball," Notti said. "Tennis you can do and golf you can do too . . . You can't beat it."

And, he said that colleges offer golf scholarships to attract players.

"[Golf] is growing so quickly in colleges," Notti said. "They are looking for people to play the sport."

There are 800 players in the youth golf program at Smithtown Landing Golf Course, where some players start as young as 5, according to Michael Hebron, director of golf. He said that's about a 10 percent increase over the last four to five years.

"I have a 4-year-old child in our family who knows who Tiger Woods is," Hebron said. "I don't think that [child] knows who Michael Jordan is. The golf industry has done a good job of exposing the game and the value of the green grass experience."

Mike Yurman, a 17-year-old golfer from Bethpage, said he plans to attend a few days of the Open this week. He played on the high school golf team and has been playing since he was about 6, mostly influenced by his father.

For Yurman, and other members of the Bethpage golf team, the Open is exceptional because this is the course they play on for the high school.

"Hopefully I will pick up some tips by just watching the pros and how they are hitting the ball," Yurman said.

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