Bunel’s champion junior golfers will bring a tear to your eye and a big old smile to your face.
HARWINTON – I just want to thank Jim Bunel for ruining my night and brightening my day a while back.
I took ride to Fairview Farms on a gray, Sept. 11 evening to check out Bunel’s PGA Junior Golf Program’s Western League All-Star team which includes players from Fairview, Watertown and Highfield (Middlebury) Golf Clubs.
The team was having a final practice before leaving for the Region I tournament (Sept. 13-15) at Cranberry Valley Golf Club on Cape Cod. A tournament it would win again four days later to earn a second straight trip to the national competition in Arizona, Oct. 9-13. The team would place 10th overall on their second consecutive trip out west, where they are becoming regulars.
The 29-year-old Bunel, who first got our notice as a pretty fair sharpshooter for the Gilbert School boys basketball team a few years back and now is the JV coach at Thomaston High for his brother A.J. who is the varsity coach, is the assistant pro at Fairview and also pretty good with a golf club in his hand and does an outstanding job coaching this classy collection of golfing gurus.
Now I golf a little (very little at times) in a Thursday night league at Fairview and play to about a bogey average but with the all the consistency of a dancing knuckleball. Scores range from 41-51 and sometimes the ball is on the green, other times the Environmental Protection is looking for me for punishing the trees and flora and fauna.
So with both a writer and golfer's interest, I thought I would check Bunel’s team out which had won its regional championship last year and played in the national tournament at Grey Hawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona and had won sectional honors this season.
I knew these young swingers were good but sometimes hearing and reading about it isn’t enough. You have to see what is going on. I got that taste of what is going on and I am now ready to retire and donate my clubs to the blue barrel outside my backdoor which reads `mixed recycling’.
My first introduction into the level I was looking at came on the second hole, part of a quick two-hole warm-up for the group. Long, lanky 13-year-old Galen Fowles after striping a drive up the middle had about 130 yards up hill to the green.
As Bunel and I watched from the comfort of the golf cart, Fowles turned to us and said, “I’m kind of deciding whether to scull a nine-iron or hit an abbreviated 3-wood". An abbreviated 3-wood? Excuse me, I have trouble spelling the word forget about having the first clue of how to hit one. I am pretty good and sculling 9-irons though.
That was my first clue as to how good, how analytical the young swingers are. A more visual education came when we moved over to the practice tees and I again I kind of sat there and cried as I watched a line of young golfers, some barely bigger than a big bass, or trout smoke drive after drive out into the night, straight and long.
I thought about all my slices, ground balls and tree-huggers and that’s where the tears came from. Again, my eyes found Fowles, who hails from North Hampton, Mass. and has a swing as sweet as mom’s shoulder on a bad day. He was cranking drives to the top of the netting way out near the 11th fairway and setting sun. Some might have even cleared the net. Did I say he’s 13?
It was all a good reminder that there are those of us who play the game and then there are players. These are players.
“This is a very, very comfortable group,” said Bunel. “They are comfortable in what they do. More important is their ability to improvise.”
The group comes from all over – North Hampton, Watertown, West Hartford, Farmington and Berlin. Bunel began working the program with Suzy Whaley Golf at the Tournament Players Club in Cromwell several years back. Whaley was the first women to qualify for a PGA tournament in 58 years in 2003 and became the first women President of the PGA of America.
When Whaley left the program Bunel took over and a lot of the kids followed him to Fairview. For this elite group of swingers, it is a program of passion for a passion.
“It’s fun to go to different places and play matches and see courses,’ said 11-year-old Alex Halpert.
How about the pressure Mr. Halpert? – “The first one I was a little nervous but you get over it,” he said.
Spoken like a true veteran.
Fowles likes the challenge.
“There are always kids that can beat me when they play well, it is all about the mental state,” said Fowles.
Fowles mental state is fine. He made a key 8-foot or so putt to win a crucial match and push the team towards the Region I title.
Did I say these young swingers are players? And thinkers.
Bunel likes the golf but there is more.
“The general idea is for this to be a mentorship program,” he said. “If you come up on Sundays, we put 20 kids out here. A lot of kids compete against one another before they come here. They can go out and try to beat each other, go home and remain friends. Ultimate they are each other’s No. 1 fan. “
I followed the group around for a couple of honors from course to tee to putting green. You never stopped being impressed. You hear about them now; you will hear more about them in the future. It was one-part humbling, all parts awesome.
So, to North Chery, Will Gregware, Galen Fowles, Reilly Fowles, Annie Dai, Caleb Smith, Luke Hoglund, Alex Halpert, John Lahtinen and Brennan Myers many congratulations and best of luck in your future.
Titles speak of your skill, but seeing it all in person makes the written word pale. Wow!
And to Jim Bunel I didn’t really need this to validate how crappy my game is. Don’t invite me again. Kidding. But it sure brightened my day. These are players. Awesome. Everybody should see what I saw.