STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Andrew Donner walks out of the club at Haymaker Golf Course holding sets of clubs in each hand.
As director of instruction and junior golf at Haymaker Golf Course, Donner knows how to fit his junior golfers with the perfect set of clubs instantly.
The first five of the nine golfers in the Girls on the Green program had just arrived and with their clubs for the evening slung over their shoulders, they headed towards the putting green.
Junior golf is growing in Steamboat Springs, especially for junior girls. The Girls on the Green program, a noncompetitive, weekly group lesson for girls ages 11 and over, had 22 girls last year, averaging a rotating 12 girls every Wednesday night in the summer. The program was started in 2017 by Suzi Mitchell, whose daughter wanted a noncompetitive environment to learn golf.
“Basically, my daughter, Kristina, started middle school and we were looking at the junior golf program,” Mitchell said. “And I said, ‘Why do you think girls aren’t coming?’ And she said, ‘Well, I just feel like I don’t want to be around the boys.’”
Donner asked the girls to raise their hands if they’ve been playing golf, or in the program before, and four hands eagerly shot up. They knew the rules, each of them listing a rule for a Starburst candy reward. Some of them may go on to play competitively, but some may not. Donner can name one girl in town with a desire to be a competitive varsity player.
He tried to implement as many junior programs as possible, that way the course is available to kids five days a week. The problem with most junior programs is that they’re male-dominated, but he’s seen change blossom from instruction through Girls on the Green and boys bringing their sisters to other programs.
“Couple years ago we maybe had a girl out here, here and there,” Donner said. “Yesterday, in the beyond the basics program, we had a 9- and a 10-year-old girl. One of the biggest challenges is, I think, is there’s a little bit of intimidation when they show up and it’s all boys.”
But the growth at the junior level has yet to translate to the varsity level on the girls side.
Over the past four years, Haymaker Golf Course’s junior programs have seen 25% to 40% growth in its junior programs. It’s programs like these that help feed a high school boys program that took second in Class 4A state tournament this past year, but for girls, the future of their competitive careers faces more challenges.
Limiting the growth of the sport
The varsity boys golf season is in the fall, when the courses are in their top condition. The varsity girls golf season is in the spring, when the courses on the Front Range are coarsely brown or buried in snow on the Western Slope.
Steamboat Springs High School started its high school girls golf team in 2016, after a student, Amanda Perlman, played a year with the boys and attracted three more girls to the 2015 tryout. Shannon Hanley, a Ladies Professional Golf Association player in Steamboat and former director of instruction at Haymaker Golf Course, took the reins as head coach.
This year, the team had nine girls, including two returning seniors and one sophomore who had never played golf. The team played on on golf courses three times the whole season before regional competition, practicing in an indoor studio or on the football field in between boys and girls lacrosse, baseball and track practices. Because of limited resources, Hanley takes a holistic approach to coaching, offering nutrition and yoga classes in addition to golf instruction.
“We’re never going to have an amazing amount of junior golfers because, if they have that much talent, they would need to go to a different community,” Hanley said. “The fact that they let girls from the Front Range compete in our league and win by 50 shots at regionals, that’s a huge concern for schools like us: Moffat County, Eagle County. ”
According to the Colorado High School Activities Association assistant commissioner and head golf commissioner Tom Robinson, girls golf became a high school-sanctioned sport in 1990, while the boys were sanctioned in 1947. The two have always had separate seasons.
“We did a survey with our schools in 2016, and the majority of the golf community has decided that they’d rather keep it like it was,” Robinson said. “We were going to try to do another survey. The regional tournament for all three classes have been in early May around the first week and we’re looking at having those the last week in May and the state championship second week in June.”
This is in response to this year’s state competition on May 20, which had to cancel its second day of competition on May 21 due to snowy weather.
The situation with girls golf can be compared to that of boys baseball, according to Robinson. In response to inclement weather from previous years, the CHSAA baseball committee moved the state championships to after Memorial Day. By possibly doing the same with girls golf, the season would extend three weeks. Hanley believes this isn’t a solution to Steamboat’s problem.
The 2016 survey proposed options like flipping the girls and boys seasons every two years or combining the girls and boys seasons in the fall. Steamboat athletic director Luke DeWolfe doesn’t remember how he voted, but views the girls season as inconvenient for Steamboat, while recognizing the challenges of combining the seasons.
“Speaking as the AD for Steamboat, I would be genuinely looking at some different scenarios for girls golf,” DeWolfe Said. “I remember conflicts with golf courses being an argument: that having girls and boys tournaments at the same time and same courses wasn’t necessarily feasible. Generally, it would be hard to argue that it wouldn’t benefit our girls to have their season at a different time.”
Donner thinks the idea of golf courses not welcoming both girls and boys tournaments at the same time in the fall hurts the sport.
“I think it’s incredibly unfair,” Donner said. “The reasoning has been that it puts too much stress on the golf courses. Personally, I don’t believe that. If you talk to a lot of other boys coaches, and a lot of them are golf professionals, we all think the same: that’s a bad excuse. CHSAA needs to be making a better effort to give these girls a real season to play in. I think it makes it hard for the sport to develop for girls in the state of Colorado.”
Junior girls continue playing
The adversity girls golf faces growing past the junior level in Steamboat is something that Hanley hopes will change through summer programs.
She hopes to someday create a competitive summer program to help girls gain more experience playing in tournaments.
“Over time, we’ve seen more and more girls interested,” Hanley said. “The game is changing and a lot of it has to do with success of LPGA. Junior golf of America is realizing that if we don’t capture the juniors and catch them early, then we’ll lose them.”
As of right now, Donner said golf courses in the Steamboat area host tournaments for juniors during the summer, since traveling six hours for competition isn’t always feasible. The tournaments attract up to 40 kids, averaging around six girls in the area, including two he coaches at Haymaker. He hopes to grow that number by planting the seeds through the Girls on the Green program.
“What I’m super encouraged about is they’re starting not just coming out to junior programs, they’re starting to come out and hit balls,” Donner said. “They come out and play with their parents and learn the course. I want to make everything fun, so they’re excited to come back and play.”