Team CT Golf preps for National PGA Junior League Championships in Arizona in November (16-19).
By, JOHN TORSIELLO
A group of young Connecticut golfers are preparing for the trip of a lifetime.
Team Connecticut, coached by Bobby Sparks, head pro at Harwinton’s Fairview Farm Golf Course, and assistant Fairview pro and former Gilbert school multi-sport standout, Jim Bunel, is heading to Arizona in November to compete in the National PGA Junior League Championship at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona. Grayhawk has hosted the Championship since 2016, with the 2018 event scheduled for Nov. 16-19.
The 10-member team advanced to the finals by winning Sectional and Regional competitions.
“A lot of the kids can’t believe they will be on live national TV just like the pros are,” said Bunel.
Sparks, a 2013 Connecticut Junior Golf Leader, added, “It was a very unique response from the kids. Due to some of the kids just missing out on a trip to Nationals last year, this year had a sense of revenge with some of them while others were driven by the experiences shared by previous all-star team members. Overall, the end goal was this same for all the kids, but the reasoning was slightly different.”
“Getting to the National Championship is really exciting because we were so close last year but didn’t quite make it,” said team member North Chery. “Being able to represent our state at a national level is really cool.”
Offered player Rocco Palladino, “I can’t wait to go to Nationals. I get to play golf in November! I think we have a team that gets along with each other and no matter what our pairings are, we are going to support each other as best we can.”
PGA Junior League Golf has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. There were 42,000 participants across the country last year. Boys and girls of all backgrounds and skill levels are coached by PGA and LPGA professionals and learn and play together in a supportive, two-person scramble format.
The team is made of 10 “all-stars” from the PGA Junior League Western Connecticut League that consisted of squads from Fairview Farm (two teams), Watertown Golf Club (three teams), Crestbrook Park Golf Course in Watertown, and Chippanee Country Club in Bristol. After the Sparks-led team won the league title, coaches from all teams conferred to pick the top players to go to Sectionals, said Bunel, who is in his first year as a professional at Fairview Farm. He worked for Suzy Whaley Golf for a half dozen years and took three teams from SWG to the PGA Junior League Nationals.
‘We decided that we wanted the 10 best players regardless of what team they were on and how many would come from one team,” said Bunel. “We wound up with six from Fairview Farm, two from Watertown and one each from Crestbrook and Chippanee.”
The ages of the children on the team range from 8 to 13 and there is one girl, Sydney Hildago from Fairview Farm, on the squad. Other team members are Chery, Galen Fowles, Reilly Fowles, Caleb Smith and Brennan Myers, all from Fairview Farm, Palladino and Nate LaMadeleine from Watertown Golf Club, Alex Halpert from Crestbrook Park, and Brandon Frie from Chippanee Country Club.
Said Sparks, “It’s an awesome experience to bring those kids to Nationals. I feel fortunate to have brought Jimmy on board and all he brought to our programming at Fairview, especially his knowledge and experience with PGA Junior League golf.”
Sparks expects the competition to be good. “This is the World Series for the PGA Junior Golf program. “I grew up always wanting to go to Cooperstown (New York, site of National Baseball Hall of Fame) and play baseball and this an equivalent opportunity these kids have. We have an awesome group of kids, and families. It is so much fun to watch the kids develop friends and relationship as well as the parents.”
Team Connecticut posted three wins, two of them narrow victories, in the Sectional tournament, held at Middlefield’s Lyman Orchards Golf Club, to make it to the Regional event.
Said Bunel, “In our second match, we were tied 6-all at the end of regulation. Each coach had to pick two players to go to a one-hole playoff and we selected Chery and Galen Fowles. The two teams tied with a par on the playoff hole, so we went to a chip off, which we won. We then won the third match, 7-5, to take the Sectional title.”
In the team’s first match in the Regionals at Watertown Golf Club, the team played the Patriot League All-Stars out of Massachusetts. Said Bunel, “This match was much closer than the final score (8.5-3.5). We tied a lot of holes but ended up winning the one hole that would give us the point. I think the first match had a lot of jitters involved for everyone. I feel our experience kicked in and helped us remain composed in those situations.”
The Regional afternoon match was set to be very interesting. After the 495 (Route) All-Star Team had beaten the Saratoga National All-Star team, the locals knew it would not be an easy task. “The match also finished 8.5-3.5 in favor of us,” commented Bunel. “Again, it was another final score that didn't indicate the actual difficulty of the match. There were plenty of tied holes with us winning one important hole each three holes to take a point.”
The team’s third and final match at Watertown was “set up to be for it all,” said Bunel. “If we win, we go to Arizona. If we were to lose, we would be relying on another team to win to force a three-way tie and hope we win in the tie breaker. To keep it simple, I told the kids to win each and every shot, and the end result would be well worth it. To add some pressure, the Regional director informed us that the Golf Channel would be filming the kids throughout their entire match. To most, this would add pressure to the kids, but for us it was on opportunity to shine.”
The locals saved their best for last, winning 9.5-2.5 to advance to the National Championship.
Bunel said he has been very fortunate to be have been a part of three other teams that have made it to a National Championship while working for Suzy Whaley Golf prior to coming to Fairview this year (2014, 2015, 2016). “This group of kids is very different from all of those teams. These kids took a total of 10 minutes to gel. With only a couple of them knowing each other outside of golf, it seemed like it would take a while to build team camaraderie. It was quite the opposite. We have four players who have been a part of previous all-star teams with a couple of them having been to a National Championship (whether it be to play or watch an older sibling). For those four it was wanting to be back and experience it again. For the other six kids, it was wanting to be a part of something special that they had heard all about from their teammates.”
Bunel believes the combination of returning players and new players wanting to help their teammates get back to the Championship and also experience Nationals for themselves was a key. “Overall, this team is filled with kids who are motivated and willing to do what it takes for their teammates to be successful. In any sport, when you have a bunch of kids motivated by helping their teammates be the best version of themselves, success is inevitable.”
Fairview Farm Golf course has been extremely welcoming to all children and has been supportive of the desire to grow the game. If your child is not involved with the club’s Junior Golf Program they are missing out on a lot of fun, while learning to play the game of golf.
Said Bunel, “No matter what level of experience your child has in the game of golf we have a program and plan for them. Bob Sparks has one of the best reputations with juniors in our state, as he has been involved working with kids for 24 years. As our current representative for US Kids in the Connecticut, he has the passion you want to support a successful junior program.”
Bunel added, “This will be the first year the National Championship expands its field from eight teams to 12 teams. At this level, everyone is very good. This is the Williamsport of golf. Our kids will have to work real hard for the next two months, because with the way the weather works in New England, we are at a disadvantage relative to people out west and in the south. It could be snowing for our last couple of practices. In the three previous years I have been to nationals, I have seen the kids practicing in snow. No matter who we will play, our kids have proven that they will fight to the bitter end.”
The team will be starting a fundraising campaign to help the families involved make the most out the experience and help with travel expenses. “Hopefully, this will be the biggest vacation of their lives,” said Sparks. “The Golf Channel gives the event great coverage, and from what I hear the resort is spectacular. We are really looking forward to November 16.”
To find out how to help, visit www.fairviewfarmgc.com, or call 860-689-1000.