From a shady spot near the edge of the fairway, Michael Cain bends over his club and contemplates his approach to Hole Six. The green is scarcely 30 yards away, but a fat, sandy bunker looms in front of it. Carefully, Michael lines up the ball with his club and swings.
As Michael meets the ball, he hears a nice, solid thwackfollowed almost immediately by another that he wasn’t expecting. Well to the right of its intended path, the ball slams into the tree that provides Michael’s shade. It caroms directly back toward himso directly that he has to spread his legs to make way for it.
The ball comes to rest about 10 feet behind the spot where Michael stands. Some of the spectators begin to giggle as Michael sheepishly shrugs. “I should have used a putting wedge,” he mumbles as he walks back toward his ball.
On the other side of the fairway, another golfer swings, with a similarly disastrous result. The ball lifts hightoo highinto the canopy, sharply doinks a branch, and plops back to earth. The golfer shakes his head but doesn’t appear too unhappy.
“Fortunately,” smiles Joey Davis, who has been watching, “at this age, golf is not a frustrating sport.”
All summer long, Davis has presided over the play at a course that is unlike any other in the golfing world and at a camp that may be the most unusual in Tennessee. As the teaching and program director for the Tennessee PGA Junior Golf Academy in Franklin, he works with duffers, whackers, and future four-handicappers as young as 11. Some of them have traveled from as far away as Venezuela and Guatemala.
Some have come to learn the game. Some, who learned to drive a fairway years before they can legally drive a car, have come to hone their skills before playing in junior tournaments. Others, whose tuition to the camp has been covered by groups like the Charles Davis Foundation, are experiencing a sport that, otherwise, might might never have been part of their lives.
They’ve all come to the country’s only golfing venue designed expressly for them: Golf House Tennessee and the surrounding Little Course at Aspen Grove. None of the nine holes here is longer than 224 yards; one is only 80 yards long. “Beginners can play on their level,” says Lissa Horton, director of junior golf for the Tennessee PGA. “They can reach the greens on this course. And the players with lower handicaps can work on their short game. If they’re going to another camp with only a regulation course, they’re beating it down the fairway.”
There’s a junior driving range at one edge of the 15-acre property, which adjoins the 36-hole Legends course. Behind the Golf House, there’s an 18-hole putting coursenamed for Vince Gill, whose upcoming pro-celebrity tournament, the Vinny, raised $10,000 to send junior girls to the golf camps.
Inside the Golf House are a 64-bed dorm, a cafeteria, and a golf shop. Upstairs, there’s a mirror-lined teaching room, where each camper’s swing is videotaped and critiqued by a coach using an onscreen telestrator. Through a split-screen feature, kids can compare their own swings with those of tour pros, and another machine measures swing speed and extrapolates drive distance.
For juniors like Chip Taylor, who’s already addicted to the game, the camp is a foretaste of the meticulously manicured heavenly kingdom that Burt Reynolds governs in the ads on ESPN. Chip, a preternaturally confident 13-year-old, has golfed with his parents at Brentwood Country Club since he was 9. Each year, he says, he plays in five Junior PGA tournaments. “But I haven’t won any,” he quickly adds with a smile.
For $495, Chip’s parents have purchased five days of undiluted, hog-in-slop bliss for their son. (The girls’ camps, to which the association is trying to attract more participants, cost $100 less.) Each day, he can spend eight hours on the courseeven more if he chooses to return during the two hours of afternoon free time. Each day, he receives individual instruction. He plays in team shootouts and impromptu putting tournaments. He can have his picture taken with one of the Tennesseans on the PGA Tour, like Loren Roberts. Several times, he can even play The Legends course next door.
“This is a fun camp,” he says, peering out from beneath the visor of his blue-and-orange Titleist cap. “It’s good experience. I can work on my whole game.”
Chip excuses himself to confer with his partner for this morning’s shootout, Allen Campbell. Allen’s last shot found the sand, and now it’s up to Chip to dig it out.
Chip removes a wedge from his bag, practices his swing, and then deftly blasts the ball from the trap; it drops five feet from the pin. “You just pick the club up a little, bring it down really steep, and hit about an inch behind the ball,” he explains.
Patrick Wiley is less successful in extricating his team from the bunker. His chip shot stirs up a cloud of sand but barely disturbs the ball. But his enthusiasm remains equally unmovable. Before three days ago, after all, he had never wielded a club.
“I didn’t know anything about golf,” confesses Patrick, a freshman at Maplewood High School.
“Most of [the others] have played a lot of golf,” his friend Michael Cain chimes in. “We’re just standing here clueless.”
Their confidence, however, quickly soars like a John Daly drive. Patrick’s very first tee shot hits the pin and almost falls for a hole-in-one, while Michael’s initial shot reaches the green.
After that, says Patrick, “I kept hitting the ball in the woods. But all the others were hitting ’em in the woods too. Everybody’s real down to earth. They help me out, show me what clubs to use.”
The kids appear to be having a good time, even though their respective twosomes have been eliminated from today’s shootout. As they trudge their bags of clubs up the fairway, they stop for a moment to regard a small clump of loose feathers. “He killed a bird yesterday with a golf ball,” says Patrick, pointing at a fellow golfer ahead.
Ignoring golf etiquette, they’re busily chattering as they reach the last hole of the shootout, where Chip’s twosome is eliminated after his decisive chip shot travels only a few feet. “I duffed it,” he confesses with a half-smile.
The winning duo then represent their Red Team group in a one-hole playoff against the two leaders from another group of campers. At the green, the gallery of teenage boys falls quiet. When one from their group sinks the winning putt, the entire Red Team breaks into cheers, as if saluting the winner at Augusta.
This was big, explains Chip. Thanks to that putt, everyone on the team has just won a T-shirt.