By Brad King
Longtime Raleigh teaching professional Jimmy Hamilton said the addition of Operation 36 Golf at The Golf Academy at Wildwood Green Golf Club, where he serves as director of instruction, has been a win-win-win for course ownership, staff and the golfers themselves.
A Garner, N.C.-based, on-course development model and coaching program, Operation 36 Golf is designed to take a beginner from their very first round of golf to becoming a lifelong golfer.
Beginners play nine holes starting 25 yards from each green in events run by a facility’s professional staff. The challenge is to shoot par 36 — by taking four strokes or fewer on each hole. Once the golfer shoots 36 or better, they progress to Division 2, and start 50 yards from each green. All progress is tracked in the Operation 36 Mobile App. The challenge continues until the golfer can shoot par 36 from all 10 divisions — with the final division being 3,200-plus yards for nine holes.
Wildwood Green began incorporating the Operation 36 program in the spring of 2017 with six juniors. By fall, after the club’s new greens opened, there were 25.
In 2019, there were 45 participants in the spring, 28 in the summer and 63 in the fall. This spring, Wildwood Green has 80 juniors signed up — and Hamilton said he is quickly running out of class space.
“When I first learned about Operation 36, the structure of the classes and the on-course component was a huge part of my decision to jump in,” said Hamilton, who has won numerous Carolinas PGA Pro-Am events and has been nominated by his peers for Carolinas PGA Teacher of the Year, Club Professional of the Year and Junior Golf Leader of the Year. “The ability for parents to follow the progress of their juniors is now another big part of the draw.”
Hamilton said The Golf Academy at Wildwood Green, located in the heart of northwest Raleigh, has shown its ownership that golf course usage through Operation 36 helps drive revenue to the facility during slower times, while also creating new membership opportunities. “With many 7 to 10-year-olds in the program that membership number is likely to grow as the juniors (continue to) play the game,” he said.
Hamilton recently had a group of four juniors playing 25 yards behind a group of highly accomplished players. He said the juniors waited at every green for the good players to finish the hole.
“(Operation 36 Golf) is one of the best if not the best way to introduce a junior or a beginning adult to the game, and not be intimidated by longer holes and longer playing times,” Hamilton said.
Raleigh’s Country Club at Wakefield Plantation — annual host of the Korn Ferry Tour’s Rex Hospital Open — began implementing Operation 36 in the club’s junior programs last fall, with 36 participants, followed by 25 in the winter and 30 already signed up for the spring — a number that Wakefield Plantation director of golf Adam McLaughlin expects to increase.
McLaughlin reports outstanding results, as well as overwhelmingly positive feedback from the parents. Wakefield Plantation plans to introduce the program to its ladies’ programs this spring. “Operation 36 can be implemented into any kind of beginning program you have, whether it’s juniors, ladies, even some of your better golfers like seniors can go into it,” McLaughlin said.
“I like that it starts from the green going backwards,” he said. “So, it gets people out on the golf course playing. I’ve done clinics for 15 years. It seems like it’s really hard to get the kids and the parents actually on the golf course. They’ll come to the clinics once a week, but once they get to about 10, 11, 12 (years old), they still haven’t had success on the course and they don’t have any interest in coming back.
“Now, they realize like, ‘Hey, a 150-yard shot counts the same as a 1-foot putt.’ I really like that scoring aspect,” McLaughlin said. “They can identify very quickly what they need to work on. At 25 yards, they get some success pretty early. Sometimes they can putt from off the green. Fifty yards is where it gets a little more challenging. You’re really just competing against yourself. That seems to give it less pressure.”
Designed through a decade-plus of study and experimentation, Operation 36 Golf is the brainchild of a pair of PGA professionals, Ryan Dailey and Matt Reagan, who first teamed up to start a long-term junior golf development program at Keith Hills Golf Club in Buies Creek. Their original goal was to increase family participation at the golf course with a focus on developing the juniors as athletes first, as well.
Several incarnations later, they arrived at Operation 36 — an on-course development model with a 6-Rank curriculum program in which students and parents track their progress via an app, while professionals can interact with a student’s progress online and keep them motivated outside of class.
The program has gained widespread popularity during the past several years, growing to more than 525 facilities in eight countries and approaching 30,000 participants. Thirty-three clubs in North Carolina (46 total in the Carolinas) are currently using Operation 36, including 10 in the Triangle and five in the Triad. Other notable courses in the Carolinas include Colleton River, Pinehurst Resort, Kiawah Island and Greensboro Country Club.
“Operation 36 is just a way better structured program,” said PGA Tour winner and Operation 36 parent William McGirt. “(With) the progression through the yardages and being play-based, everything is focused around playing golf.”
During their odyssey, Dailey and Reagan have been recognized for their efforts by receiving the 2013 and 2014 Carolinas PGA Youth Player Development awards, as well as being voted best teachers in the state of North Carolina by Golf Digest in 2018 and 2019.
Old North State Club, a Tom Fazio-designed private club along a 2 ½-mile peninsula of Badin Lake in New London, didn’t run an Operation 36 junior program, but the club boasted roughly a dozen men and the remainder women among its 40 participants.
“The program, I feel, was primarily geared towards engaging youth in golf,” said Old North State golf pro Adam Davey. “At our facility, we don’t have many juniors who live out here full-time so (professional) Danielle (Haislip-Allen) and I kind of took the program and modified it somewhat. It’s a great program in that you can tailor it to your specific needs.”
Kernersville’s Peyton Wyatt, who is 9 years old, and his sister, Emma, 8, started participating in Operation 36 at The Cardinal by Pete Dye in Greensboro. Last March, McConnell Golf transitioned The Cardinal from a private club into a semi-private facility, and the club introduced Operation 36 Golf soon thereafter.
The Cardinal professional Logan Peck said he uses much of what Operation 36 provides on its website, but he also incorporates a lot of his own twists as well, such as getting the golfers on flight scope and getting their yardages. “But it’s doing a lot of games, warm-ups,” Peck said. “I have learned playing is becoming a lot more fun than practice and just hitting range balls. They love breaking 36 and moving to the next level and feeling that level of accomplishment.
“I use the website and log in their practice sessions and events with me, and they can do their own individual practices and play dates,” Peck said. “Most practices are just getting them to show their grip, posture, etc., and then play games to make it fun, you then check off all the tasks they needed to pass each rank.”
Peyton and Emma’s father, Alex Wyatt, said Operation 36 has made learning a challenging game much more enjoyable for his son. “A year ago, before Operation 36, Peyton would get frustrated when he shot 50 to 55, now he gets frustrated when he shoots 40 to 45. It’s been a nice turnaround,” Wyatt said.