First Tee of Pittsburgh, Dick’s Sporting Goods, PGA team to grow the next generation of golfers
Oliva Pretto held an interest in the game of golf for several years before she took it up a notch a couple of months ago.
This past Christmas, the 12-year-old Upper St. Clair Township resident received golf lessons as a gift and began those lessons in January through The First Tee of Pittsburgh.
Those lessons throughout the winter and early spring led to her joining the local PGA Junior League program at the Bob O’Connor Golf Course at Schenley Park.
“Through The First Tee, I learned the game, the rules, the right way to play the game and the way you should treat the players and coaches around you,” said Pretto, a rising eighth-grader at St. Thomas More School in Bethel Park.
“It helped me be ready to play when the junior league started.”
Pretto said her game has improved over the past couple of months in the league, which is a part of The First Tee of Pittsburgh.
In its second year, the local PGA Junior League chapter has hosted 73 youth golfers from all over the Pittsburgh region with the mission of building their skills and love of the sport and fostering friendships on and off the course.
“The kids come from so many different areas and backgrounds and they really enjoy the social aspect of the league as well as playing the game, and it’s so much fun to see that interaction,” said Jennifer Jaumotte, Oliva’s mother and a volunteer with the PGA Junior League.
Eric Kulinna, a PGA pro for 26 years and a certified First Tee coach since 2012, captains the PGA Junior League program.
“It is a special feeling to introduce kids to the game and all the benefits the game has for their life and their development as young people,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s something they can do for the rest of their lives.”
The First Tee of Pittsburgh itself is a part of the larger national First Tee program.
PGA Reach is the philanthropic arm of PGA of America and is the engine for the PGA Junior League program nationwide.
“We piloted this last year with the First Tee of Pittsburgh. We had four teams and had a really great response,” Kulinna said.
“We were contacted through people at the PGA of America who were working with Dick’s Sporting Goods, a national sponsor of PGA Reach and the PGA Junior League. Dick’s already was a sponsor of The First Tee in Pittsburgh, and they wanted to help make the junior league grow locally.”
Through PGA Reach and Dick’s, scholarship money is available to the league participants to help all who want to take part in the program.
“It’s been interesting to see the evolution of some of the kids who never even knew what golf was from the aspect of playing other than seeing it on TV to actually putting club to ball on the course,” said Joe Aigner, a coach with The First Tee and PGA Junior League and a parent of one of the league golfers.
“It’s great to see the camaraderie among the kids and see how much each has improved.”
The PGA Junior League allows boys and girls of all skill levels to learn and play the game in a two-person scramble format that combines a duo’s different abilities toward what they hope is a successful outcome.
“You learn from each other,” said Izabela Aigner, 11, a Ruffsdale resident and one of the more experienced and skilled golfers in the league.
“If I have a bad shot, it’s nice to have a partner there who will support me. It’s about teamwork.”
The league members, boys and girls from ages 7 to 14, are spread out and balanced over seven teams with the skill level of each golfer considered.
Each of the teams are named after The First Tee’s core values, including respect, perseverance, confidence, judgment, sportsmanship and integrity, which are printed on the back of the jerseys.
“We have kids who are very skilled on the course, and there are others who just picked up a club for the first time this year,” Kulinna said.
“Each team has that balance of experienced players and some younger players just starting out. The more experienced players not only can get better themselves but are mentoring the younger kids on their team. We want to bring the fun of the game to as many kids as we can in a team format.”
League members, all from The First Tee program, come from all points north, south, east and west in the Pittsburgh region.
The league’s regular season wrapped up June 10 and last Sunday featured the semifinal round of the playoffs.
The championship match will be July 8. The local all-star team members who will combine for a chance to make it to nationals in November in Scottsdale, Ariz., also will be announced.
The all-star team will consist of two players from the league champion and one player from each of the other teams. Two at-large selections, based on coach recommendations and play during the season, also will be chosen to round out the 10-player squad.
The section tournament, run through the Tri-State PGA, will be in August at Tam O’Shanter Golf Course in Hermitage with regionals at Valley Brook Golf Club in Canonsburg in September.
Twelve teams will qualify from the regionals to play at nationals in Arizona.
“We wouldn’t have to travel too far if we are able to advance to regionals,” Kulinna said. “We have some pretty good kids, so we’ll see how things go.”