Here Comes the Sun at Area Golf Courses

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Despite a sloppy start to the season, golf specialists across the region are optimistic that this summer will be filled with exciting play, as courses make an effort to capture a renewed interest in the sport.

“It’s the second-fastest growing youth sport,” asserts Brian Tolnar, director of golf at Mill Creek Park Golf Course. “We’re trying to give these kids a recreational opportunity and keep them off of their cell phones.”

Teaching kids to play at a young age helps the future of the sport immensely, Tolnar says. This year, Mill Creek is initiating an outreach program where golf professionals visit middle schools to encourage these young people to come out and play instead of being tied down to video games.

Mill Creek representatives will first visit Canfield and Boardman schools this academic year, and in the fall incorporate Youngstown City, Poland, Austintown and perhaps South Range schools into the outreach effort.

Enthusiasm for the sport – especially among young people – waned during the first half of this decade, Tolnar says. “We missed a whole generation,” he says. Today, however, there appears to be a resurgence of interest among beginners, and Mill Creek wants to be at the forefront of encouraging this demographic to stick with it.

“We’re also trying to be more inclusive and get women, seniors, adaptive golfers and minorities more involved in the sport,” he says. “We’ll be a better sport 10 years down the road.”

And youth participation in the sport also translates into economic benefits for the Mahoning Valley, Tolnar says. For the fourth year, Mill Creek will play host to the Mahoning Valley Hospital Foundation American Junior Golf Association All-Star Tournament.

Sponsors of the event, held on Father’s Day weekend, expect to attract 150 boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 15 from 49 states and more than 25 countries. “This event alone has a $500,000 financial impact in the region,” and is expected to result in between $10,000 and $15,000 in charitable contributions, Tolnar says.

According to the National Golf Foundation, an estimated 2.6 million people played golf for the first time during 2018, matching 2017 as the highest year on record. For comparison, there were 1.5 million beginners tracked in 2011. The previous record high of 2.4 million was set in 2000 when Tiger Woods was at the top of his game.

Now that Woods has made a remarkable comeback this year with his stunning win at the Masters, it’s likely more will flock to the sport, Tolnar posits. “When Tiger plays well, everybody pays attention,” he says.

The junior golf program at The Lake Club, a private country club in Poland, has also experienced growth this year, says Don Confoey, director of golf. “We’ve expanded that program,” he says, accepting kids between the ages of 13 and 17.

Moreover, there’s an initiative to attract even younger players to the sport, Confoey says.

This year, the club expects to field two teams in the PGA Junior League, a league that invites boys and girls 13 and under to play in a two-member scramble format and advance to national tournaments.

This year, the finals will be held at Oct. 11 through 14 at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Confoey expects a busy season at the course, not withstanding the slow start because of inclement weather. “So far, it’s been rough because of the rain,” he says. Drainage systems built on the greens years ago have helped the course maintain its speedy putting surfaces, while crews are hoping to work on more of the soggy areas after the grounds dry up.

“Our grounds crew is exceptional,” Confoey says.

The Lake Club isn’t known for its long holes, but the short game is challenging, he says. “There’s a lot of emphasis on the short game. The green structures are demanding; they’re high-speed and difficult to play.”

Still, the club boasts “a very active golfing membership,” Confoey says, and this year will again host the finals for the Greatest Golfer of the Valley tournament. “The course is really fantastic.”

Overall play on the golf courses throughout the nation was down in 2018, according to the National Golf Foundation, in part because of abnormal weather. About 434 million rounds of golf were played throughout the year, down 4.8% from 2017. Last year was the third-wettest year on record, the organization notes, and the sport is heavily dependent on a strong balance of sunny days, especially in climates such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

“It’s been a little wet this spring and we’re hoping things dry up soon,” says Mike Ferranti, general manager at Reserve Run Golf Course in Poland and the Links at Firestone Farms in Columbiana. “Nevertheless, play has been pretty steady,” he says.

Volatile weather wreaks havoc on a course, Ferranti says, so it’s important to stay atop of course conditions. “You’ve especially got to watch standing water, which is a breeding ground for fungus that can take over at a moment’s notice,” he says.

Ferranti says chemicals and machinery are two of the biggest expense for both courses.

Some of the more intricate mowers on the market today cost between $80,000 and $100,000. Greens mowers are even more intricate and able to cut grass within one-hundredth of an inch.

“We cut greens daily in season, and cut the fairways and rough about three times a week,” he says.

Reserve Run and the Links at Firestone complement each other well, Ferranti says. Reserve Run is a beautiful course that doesn’t beat players up in terms of length and degree of difficulty. The Links at Firestone is more inclined for tournament-style golf – very few trees, but characterized by length and distance.

“It’s definitely a tournament golf course,” he says, designed by the acclaimed architect Brian Huntley, who also designed the course at Kennsington Golf Club in Canfield.

Ferranti expects the sport of golf to become even more popular over the next several years, evidenced by more young professionals joining evening or weekend leagues.

“We’re looking for a good year,” Ferranti says.

Rule changes implemented this year also stand to make the game more enjoyable to play, he says.

For example, those on the putting greens now have the option of leaving the flagstick in the hole, whereas before that option was available only to those who played their balls off the green.

One is also able to take a drop from knee height, allowing for a better lie, he says.

Pictured at top: Reserve Run Golf Course in Poland.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.