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Young Golfers Come Out Swinging

Photograph by Bob Capazzo

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It's hard to pick out the low point playing golf with Charlie von Arentschildt as his guest at Greenwich Country Club. Was it the three consecutive swings that managed to move the ball forward a grand total of three feet (the last swing being a whiff)? Or was it that forlorn question shortly after, directed to thirteen-year-old Charlie: “What am I doing wrong?”

“I’ve been dying for you to ask me that,” Charlie replies, his wide smile revealing braces and a genuine eagerness to share his love of the game. “First of all, your knees aren’t square with the ball. Try to get your hips up more. And you’re dipping into the ball, when you should … ”

If there’s any solace in this pubescent tutorial, it is the fact that Charlie is no weekend duffer but one of many Greenwich youngsters committing considerable time and effort honing their golf skills. Forget about Playstations or Quidditch matches with Harry. These kids are too busy working on their short games and sand shots. And they have been getting results, not only in local club tournaments but also at regional, even national, golf events.

Take last year’s U.S. Kids Golf World Championship, held in July in Williamsburg, Virginia, where Greenwich’s Theo Humphrey, then nine, finished ninth in a field of ninety-one of the best male players in his age group from across the nation and around the world.

Theo, who missed a grand total of five fairways in the three-round, 18-hole tournament, can drive the ball 200 yards from the tee with a perfect circular swing, and approaches everything from bunker shots to putting with a can-do attitude that belies the fact he has never taken a lesson and has learned all he knows from watching professional golf on television. “I never feel uncomfortable at the golf course,” Theo says firmly.

At the same tournament, in the ten-year-old boys’ section, another Greenwich prodigy, Danny Guise, finished tied for twenty-seventh in a field of eighty-three. Danny first competed in a junior golf tour in the fall of 2004. By the following Memorial Day, he had finished eleventh in the tour championship, hitting a 74 at Walt Disney World’s Lake Buena Vista course.

It’s rare to meet a youngster with Danny’s eager amiableness, something of a throwback to those Beaver Cleaver days when hanging out with your folks was cool. For all his great golf shots, he was more excited talking about the nearly consecutive holes in one his parents, Debbie and Joe, made last summer.

Danny also takes special pride in tutoring others, whether they’re younger kids around his neighborhood or grown men at the public course near his home, the Griffith E. Harris Memorial on King Street. “I taught the flop shot to this man at the Griff,” Danny says, eyes like saucers. “He must have been in his fifties. He saw me practicing it and asked me to give him some pointers. So I showed him the flop shot, the punch shot and the sand shot. We were working on his shots for forty-five minutes. Then he went out to play and told me he had the best round of his life. He shot an 85.”

Sean Massi shot an 84 at the Griff last August at the Greenwich Junior Golf Championship, and as he trudged through the round, you could feel his gloom a hundred yards away. The Greenwich High sophomore is simply not comfortable having an over-80 round, not when playing from the member tees, anyway. Sean has been playing competitively for only a few years, but he knows what he is capable of. A very long and straight shooter on his good days, he made the tough Greenwich High varsity team as a freshman last year. He practices regularly at the Griff, where his brother is a pro and his father the administrator.

Last July, Sean participated in a New York City tournament against a field of top high school-age players, including more than a few who eschew traditional educations for instruction at specialized golf academies, sort of a TigerWoods-or-bust gamble many parents take. Conversation with these aspiring pros was scant; the pressure immense. Although he finished in the top twenty, Sean remained haunted months later by the memory of his last two holes, a double bogey and a triple.

“I learned a lesson: Don’t take anything for granted,” he says.

Sean’s friend and frequent playing partner, Brian Czarnecki, also a sophomore who made the team as a freshman, admires his friend’s powerful skill with the driver but says Sean’s mental improvements have been more impressive. “He used to get down on himself so fast, like if he had one bad shot,” Brian says. “He still gets mad, but he rebounds so much quicker. He keeps his head in every shot.”

Despite their closeness in age, Brian and Sean make an unlikely pair. Friendly but serious, Sean has an imposing intensity that shows in his eyes and face. Depending on where the ball lies, his manner of approaching each new shot can suggest either hawklike alertness or a condemned man walking the last mile. Brian, tall and lank, is preternaturally happy-go-lucky, with the kind of personality that approaches a tap-in birdie putt or an awkward chip from the rough with equal unruffled élan.

Brian’s older brother Matt is a good example of how far a Greenwich kid can go with golf. After winning not only the junior town championship with a record 67 and the Griff’s annual men’s tournament while still in high school, Matt has  extended his golfing career into college, moving on to the varsity team at Holy Cross. Ask Brian and Sean how far they want to take their game, and they give the same answer: “As far as it will take me.”

Joe Felder has been the head pro at the Griff since 1990, and his focus on young people has marked his long tenure both at the town-owned course and on the Metropolitan PGA’s board of directors. When asked if young people are more interested in the game today than they were a few years ago, Felder replies, “Without a doubt. When I first got here, there were thirty-nine junior memberships, for kids age ten through seventeen. We had 785 this year.

“I think it’s kind of funny that the most recognizable athlete is Tiger Woods,” he continues. “When has it ever been a golfer before?”

A similar youth movement is afoot at the town’s private clubs. Tommy Monteverdi, the director of junior golf at Greenwich Country Club, and one of Charlie von Arentschildt’s mentors, also credits the rise of Tiger Woods, who won the prestigious Masters tournament in 1997 at age twenty-one, for starting the boom.

“From that, particularly at private clubs, parents want to see their kids learn it, and more and more, kids stick with it,”

Monteverdi says. “Parents tell me how their kids say: ‘Take me to the range’ or ‘I want to practice putting.’ When a kid gets to a certain age, golf just sticks and clicks.”

The same holds true for girls. Felder’s annual Memorial Day clinics for youngsters already draw nearly as many young women as men, and he predicts the professional debut of teenage phenom Michelle Wie will have much the same booming effect on girls that Tiger Woods had on boys.

Golfing girl power is nowhere more in evidence than at Greenwich High, where last year for the first time the school fielded a female varsity squad. One of the Cardinal’s founding members, and this year’s cocaptain, is Leah Colombo, a soft-spoken junior with long blond hair, penetrating olive eyes and a wide brow that furrows often as she talks about the game.

“This year we finished shy of the FCIAC [Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference] by one stroke, which is a very competitive conference,” she says. “We got into the States, where we placed tenth out of thirty-five teams. I think we made a good impression.”

Leah works in the pro shop at the Milbrook Club, where she makes use of one of the town’s most knowledgeable senior professionals, John Budkins. Before and after her shift, and sometimes when business is slow, Budkins takes his young charge out to the range and watches her swing. “Her swing plane is the big one right now,” Budkins explains. “We need to work on the rotation in her golf swing and stop her swaying. When you move the center of your swing, it makes the swing more lateral than rotational. You want to keep the right side [Leah, a righty, swings facing left] passive.”

Leah has been seeing some improvement in her distance, a big concern as she hits the ball consistently straight rather than far. “When I first learn something, I tend to second-guess it,” she confesses. “But then it becomes second nature. The more I practice something, the more confident I tend to get about it.”