The thing Jim Bunel loves most about coaching junior golfers is their honesty.
“I have a lot of kids who have been admittedly nervous over their first tee shots or a crucial putt to win a hole or a flag. That is what it is all about,” said Bunel, a PGA Associate from Fairview Farm Golf Course in Harwinton, Conn. “If you aren’t nervous or feeling a little pressure, that’s typically because you lack an understanding of the moment. These kids care and want to do their best every time. It’s my job as a coach to make sure they are focused but comfortable with the task at hand. Coaching at this level is a dream come true.”
Bunel is readying his Team Connecticut All-Star squad for the seventh PGA Junior League Championship at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., this weekend. The championship, presented by National Car Rental, features 12 teams of 10 junior golfers ages 13 and under who have earned their way to Scottsdale via sectional and regional qualifiers.
In addition to Connecticut, teams representing California, Washington, Delaware, Virginia, Ohio, Louisiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Texas, Illinois and Minnesota are competing for the title. The 12 teams will be divided into two divisions – Ryder and Wanamaker – and will face each other in a series of round-robin, nine-hole matches that utilize a two-person, scramble format.
Following division play Saturday, Sunday and Monday morning, the two teams with the best division records will compete for the national title on Monday afternoon. The runners-up from each division will play for third place. Teams from California or Georgia have captured the title each of the first six years, and defending champion Georgia is back looking to repeat.
A record 51,000 boys and girls played on nearly 4,000 teams across the country this year, up from 42,000 kids on 3,400 teams in 2017. That growth led the PGA Junior League Championship to expand from eight teams to 12.
LPGA star Lexi Thompson, who has served as an ambassador to PGA Junior League since 2016, feels a responsibility to give back to the younger generation.
“It’s extremely important to serve as an ambassador because I love working with, and hopefully inspiring kids to pick up and play this wonderful game of golf,” Thompson said. “They are the future of our sport and we need to get them excited about playing this great game.
“Golf can be such a solitary and isolating sport sometimes, so being able to play on a team with other kids makes it more fun and will hopefully keep them excited about playing the game. I think being part of a team with other kids also helps them learn more about the game.”
Team Connecticut’s Bunel is certainly no stranger to the national championship having coached three teams here in the past. And while there will always be jitters, having that experience definitely helps.
“This time there is a lot more excitement than nervousness,” Bunel said. “Having been fortunate enough to be a part of three previous national championships, I was always excited but typically more nervous than anything. Knowing what the PGA of America does for all of these great young golfers and coaches makes this event really special. They do a great job of rolling out the red carpet.”
Experience will definitely play a role for Team Texas which placed fourth last year and returns eight players from that team.
Captain Ben Willman, lead instructor at Axis Golf Academy in Montgomery, Texas, says his players are excited and eager to improve upon last year’s finish.
“I know the kids are all looking forward to it and have been working hard for months leading into the event,” Willman said. “This team is special. All the kids are local and know each other very well. They are all close friends and hang out and play golf with each other on a regular basis. I love coaching these kids because it’s so much fun. They work hard and are all great players because of it. I know they will all have a great time at the championships and it will be something they will all remember for a long, long time. These kids are ready for a win.”
Finding just the right chemistry when working on pairings for each match is a very important aspect all of the coaches will face.
For Bunel, the process centers around matching up his players in such a way as to give them the best opportunity to be successful and support each other.
“All of these kids are very good golfers which makes the pairings process much easier for the coaches,” Bunel said. “Because we have some younger kids on our team, we have to be cautious of which holes we have them play and at what points in the round they are playing. Some of the older kids have better stamina so for our younger ones, we say ‘early and often.’ Make your impact early in the round and often and allow the older kids to carry you in the later holes if need be. That’s the great part of this format.
“For a lot of kids, it’s a gut check to see how you match up against 110 other great junior golfers from around the country. Often times these kids will compete against each other throughout the rest of their junior years and beyond. It’s a great way to see what you are good at and what you need to get better at to compete with the best.”
Two players in particular shouldn’t have any trouble supporting and when necessary pushing each other throughout the weekend for Connecticut – brothers Galen and Reilly Fowles.
Galen, 13, and Reilly, 11, have both played for several years and are competing for the second time at the national championship.
In fact, the duo has played so much golf together that they not only know each other’s strengths and weaknesses but club yardages and ball flights as well.
“Back when we were younger than 10, we were obsessed with scrambles around our yard,” Reilly says. “We had this flower pot that had been left in a small hole in the yard and it was a perfect golf hole. Our yard was small, so when we got old enough, going over the house was the optimal shot. We charted which tree branches would be the best targets for aiming over the house to get us close to the hole. We played as a team because we might get mad at each other if someone beat the other one.”
Galen fully expects to be paired with his brother at some point over the weekend.
“I like playing with Reilly because if someone makes a mistake, you can pretty much count on the other for a good shot,” he said. “We know what the other is going to do so we can plan our shots accordingly. We’re pretty fluid together as a pair. We’re never going to give up – even if the other kids hit a good shot, we know we’re going to hit good shots of our own.”
A two-hour special highlighting the national championship will air on the Golf Channel on Dec. 4 at 8 p.m. Eastern.