By DAVID DROSCHAK
Golf requires unwavering patience and practice.
It takes a special person, one with a vision for teaching and a passion for the sport, to deal on a daily basis with kids and teen-agers, whose minds tend to wonder and concentration becomes an ongoing challenge in a game that’s based as much on focus as athletic ability.
So as I watched Donna Lerner gather more than a dozen small kids around a green at The Preserve at Jordan Lake to begin what is the start of a seven-month marathon of camps and academies at the Chatham County course, I quickly acquired an appreciation for the veteran LPGA instructor.
And Lerner’s spring and summer work at The Preserve and sister course Chapel Ridge is just a prelude to her head coaching duties in the fall for the women’s team at Green Hope High School in Cary.
“If you know Donna she is a very dynamic individual and she has a passion for instruction and development of different segments within golf,” said Paul Mauk, president of Traditional Golf Properties, a Virginia-based group which purchased both Chatham County courses in late December.
“She runs something you don’t see very frequently,” added Mauk. “She is not only teaching kids how to hit a golf ball but she is teaching them about agronomy of the golf course, teaching them about etiquette on the golf course – she’s running the full gamut, which is all necessary stuff if you are going to create, maintain and develop new golfers. We think it’s a great thing she’s doing and we’re lucky to have her.”
Lerner, an award-winning instructor and two-time prep coach of the year, has been with The Preserve since the course opened in 2002, and has grown quite a following among the local kids, their friends and parents.
“Junior golf is really interesting,” Lerner said. “Golf when I was a child was about how dad went to play and you did other things. Well, now it’s a family sport. People are looking to do things to spend time with their children. This is a great game that teaches patience, integrity and honesty, so it’s a wonderful way for families to spend time together. Junior golf has just exploded.”
The major growth among the camps, clubs and academics that Lerner organizes has been with the female golfers, who are beginning to take the game much more seriously than a decade ago.
“It used to be that the boys started to play the game around the age of 8, and girls started to play around 13 or 14,” she said. “So, there was a five-year variable between them, and when girls got to be 15-16 years old they got distracted by boys and cars and things, and they would leave the game because they weren’t invested in it. Now parents and players realize there is scholarship money out there, there are opportunities to achieve beyond what they would have normally expected.
“In corporate America, golf is great to have on your resume,” Lerner added. “You can’t get a sales job or a marketing job unless you can play golf. The girls are now starting to get that because they do aspire to be beyond Betty Crocker in the kitchen. So, what we try to create is a place where girls not only learn the game of golf but they learn who they are, they learn about self-image, self-esteem, and we do everything in a light, humorous way that creates safe, learning environments.”
One of Lerner’s camps last year included a field trip to an LPGA tournament in Virginia, where the girls were able to mingle and hang out with professional players and see first-hand how hard work and commitment to the game can produce a successful career.
“We rented a big tour bus and 47 little girls got off the bus and the players signed everything they had, took everything out of their golf bags and now these little girls are life fans,” Lerner said. “That’s what we’re trying to establish, something that is beyond the game that they can take with them. And it was really good for the LPGA players, too. The girls got to see their TV heroes in person, and the players were really receptive and made a lot of time for the kids. I arranged for them to finish their day with Lorena Ochoa, which was awesome. I’ve got a million pictures of her and Wendy Ward and them all together.”
Mauk believes Lerner’s work is invaluable in helping build the game beyond its present customer base.
“In today’s environment you are always looking for new segments to cater to, whether it’s kids, women, guys or seniors,” Mauk said. “It’s something the industry in general probably needs to do a better job as far as fostering new customers and training them in the appropriate fashion so that you retain them. She does a great job at that.”
Learning to hit the ball squarely, attaining a proper grip or the correct stance are all important measuring sticks as a young player improves, but Lerner takes many of her camps beyond the physical aspect of play. She believes there is so much more to golf, such as rules, etiquette and the mental side.
“We really try to give them a broad-based understanding of the game and teach them how to compete on their own ground, their own terms,” she said.
Kids 7-16 can sign up for Lerner’s six different four-day camps that run from April-August. She normally draws more than 200 youngsters a summer.
This summer, Lerner is launching a new Carolina Junior Golf Academy from Aug. 15-21, which is geared toward juniors “who aspire beyond casual golf.”
“There are a lot of academies out there affiliated with universities and I think a lot of them are very beneficial, but I want to bring something else to the table, I want to make sure our program teaches these kids the skills necessary to be successful on and off the golf course. We’re bringing in sports psychologists to work with them, bringing in Duke fitness instructors to work with them, we’ll talk about academics during the week, so we’re trying to create this blended program of this is what happens when you grow up.
Golfers can e-mail Lerner for more details at Practicetee@aol.com or call 919-542-5501. It costs day golfers (including lunch) $599 for the new six-day academy, while overnight golfers pay $1,049 (including housing and three meals).
“The juniors will be staying at host homes at the Preserve. How neat is that?” Lerner said. “It teaches them what it’s like to be on the road with a college team.”