By KURT DUSTERBERG
Like so many great ideas, the Tar Heel Golf Foundation was created to fill a need.
Today, just 18 months into its operation, junior golfers across North Carolina are reaping year-round benefits.
The non-profit organization operates the Tarheel Junior Golf Tour and Tarheel Future Stars Series, a slate of events that provides competitive junior golf tournaments for boys and girls all over the state.
Bob Gerard came up with the idea after noticing how few events were available in Wake County for accomplished players.
“Basically, there was nothing here for kids who were competing and wanted some acknowledgment of where they stood against other players in the state and region,” said Gerard, who put together the organization with Eric Murray. Both men have sons who play tournament golf.
Having more local options, Gerard figured, would also cut down on the time and expense associated with playing across the state and region.
“It would make a long commute if they had a 8 a.m. starting time,” he said. “Sometimes that would mean kids would have to leave Friday, spend two nights in a hotel, and at least one parent would have to go. With hotel costs, lost time away from the family, the impact on the players’ social life, we thought it would be nice if there were some events where the kids and parents could commute within a day.”
It didn’t take long for the idea to catch on. In its second season of tournaments, the foundation has more that 1,000 members. The foundation sponsors two separate statewide junior tours. The Tarheel Junior Golf Tour caters to players in junior high and high school, with an emphasis on preparation for college competition. The Tarheel Future Stars Series provides tournaments for elementary and middle school kids who are in the developmental stages of golf.
But the kids don’t need to be budding stars to take part in the competition.
“We suggest that they have some playing experience. We like them to be able to break 100 or 95 in our two-day events,” Gerard said. “We have one-day events in the summer. Those events are open to people who don’t have much experience, for juniors who maybe play only in the summer and concentrate on academics the rest of the year.”
With the quality and quantity of golfers in North Carolina, the Tar Heel Golf Tour has earned consideration in many corners of the golf world. The recently completed Rex Hospital Open Junior Invitational came with a remarkable perk: a berth in the Rex Hospital Open, an event on the professional Nationwide Tour. Grayson Murray earned the honor by firing a 69 at Lonnie Poole Golf Course at N.C. State, followed by a 67 at TPC Wakefield Plantation.
The stakes are even greater at some events. Because the events attract top junior players, college coaches take special interest when the tournaments have a field of highly-ranked players. By Gerard’s estimation, eight to 10 coaches showed up for the Rex tournament.
“The convenience, coupled with good, quality courses and a lot of good players makes it attractive for coaches. It’s good for the kids to see that people want to see them play.”
The Tarheel Tour will likely bring out more college coaches for one of its signature events this summer. The Southeast Junior Championship takes place at Duke University Golf Club in Durham on July 3-4. On a weekend with no other major junior events anywhere in the Eastern United States, the tournament should provide a top showcase. This time, the winners of the boys’ and girls’ divisions will qualify for an American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) event.
In fact, the field will likely boast more than home-state competitors. The Tarheel Golf Tour has players registered in 25 states.
“We want to bring in completion for our players. North Carolina has a lot of really strong players, and they like being tested.”
With no need to turn a profit, the organization keeps costs to a minimum. Tournament entry fees range from $80-150 for two-day events, depending on course costs. One-day events range from $40-55.
While the foundation can’t accommodate most golfers who need financial assistance, Gerard tries to make exceptions when the opportunity arises. As an 11-year-old caddie in New York, Gerard recalls how the head pro at the club allowed him to pick up the driving range in exchange for range privileges of his own. The man who extended the kindness to him? None other than Larry Laoretti, who went on to win the U.S. Senior Open in 1992.
“At times we will let a kid help us with running an event, and then we will let him play in one. We can’t have everyone play for nothing, but if we can help somebody once in a while and get them in, that’s important.”
The Tar Heel Golf Foundation is a rare overnight success story. That’s good news for every Carolina kid with a set of golf clubs.
“It’s pretty amazing. Here we are with this little junior program for North Carolina kids. And now we have members from 25 states and five or six countries,” Gerard said.
“Our kids are well-behaved, they follow the rules, they treat each other with respect. Parents come out for their first tournament, and they’ll say, ‘It’s amazing how mature your players are.’ Plus, word has gotten around that the competition is good.”