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Youth group wants golf back in middle school

Prose and Kohn: Ryan Kohn.

Team Serenoa (Aidan Strzempka, John Piroli, Trenton Bardi, Jackson Septer,  Nathan Turpin, Drew Halpin, Vivian Kuang, Aaron Whitley, and Jacqueline Putrino) won the GSJGA championship May 20.
Team Serenoa (Aidan Strzempka, John Piroli, Trenton Bardi, Jackson Septer, Nathan Turpin, Drew Halpin, Vivian Kuang, Aaron Whitley, and Jacqueline Putrino) won the GSJGA championship May 20.
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I’m not a big golfer. I’ve played through a full round once, on vacation with family when I was 10 years old or so. (I am, however, a pro at mini-golf).

If there had been a middle school golf program in Maryland, maybe I would have gravitated more toward the sport. There was middle school golf in Sarasota County until 2010, when the school district decided to cut both golf and tennis.

Suddenly, there was no way for those kids to compete, not without dropping lots of money. This was the impetus for the creation of the Greater Sarasota Junior Golf Association. Karen Cangero is the organization’s director. 

In 2010, Cangero’s daughter, Veronica Cangero, was entering seventh grade at Venice Middle School, the first year of eligibility for middle school sports at the time.

“It was heartbreaking having a daughter who loved golf, to have this opportunity just disappear,” Cangero said.

She, alongside President Barry Cheesman, are constantly working to get schools back involved with golf. Until that happens, it’s on the shoulders of the GSJGA.

Kids can join the GSJGA for $60 a season. That gets them a shirt, a “swag bag,” and the chance to play at a number of area courses throughout the season, including Sarasota’s Village Green Golf Course and Serenoa Golf Club, and Capri Isles Golf Club in Venice. It also gets them ice cream after each round, which I probably should have mentioned sooner.

GSJGA rounds are played in teams, though individual scores are also kept. It’s the way middle school golf was played before the cuts, and Cangero thinks it’s an important aspect of the game.

“It’s such a social age for the kids,” Cangero said. “Golf is a very solitary sport. You can see we have kids who shoot close to par, and we have kids who shoot close to double-par. They all come out because they enjoy the camaraderie. They enjoy being part of a team. Just developmentally, it feeds into their needs at that age.”

Players agree. Aaron Whitley, who plays in the GSJGA for Team Serenoa, said her favorite part playing golf with the organization is doing so with her friends. She recalled one occasion especially that made her laugh.

“I was about to shoot par for the first time, a 36 (through nine holes),” Whitley said. “At the end of the round, I had about a 3-foot putt to make. One of the kids I was playing with, Jordan Evans, told me ‘No pressure!’ It was such a pressure putt, and that made it kind of funny. I made the putt and shot 36. After that, we always say ‘No pressure!’ if there’s a hard putt at the end of a round.”

Whitley will remember that moment forever. Others will remember the organization’s championship, held May 20 at Capri Isles. Whitley’s Serenoa squad won the team championship, and teammate Jacqueline Putrino had the day’s low score of 38 after the nine-hole round.

In the future, others may not have a chance to make those memories. Fewer golf courses are allowing the GSJGA to play for essentially nothing.

That’s why Cangero and Cheesman are going to meet with Sarasota County this summer. Their goal is for the middle schools to re-establish golf programs, with the GSJGA still giving assistance. It would get many more kids involved, and would help persuade golf courses in the area to let the kids play. 

Cangero isn’t optimistic that will happen. Instead, she is putting her hopes in the county letting the GSJGA advertise through school newsletters or flyers. Right now, the organization has been growing through word of mouth. Advertising would be a nice first step, Cangero said.

For the kids’ sake, I hope the county listens to what the GSJGA has to say. With all the golf courses in the area, it would be a shame to see the sport die with the younger generations.


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