RYDER CUP: Junior players will play a big part in the festivities

The upcoming Ryder Cup is much more than a three-day golf competition between the top touring professionals from the United States and Europe. It also encompasses a load of junior events that the PGA of America hopes will help grow the sport. Medinah Country Club will host some – but not all – of them.

Most unusual is the PGA Junior Golf League’s national championship. It’s a fledgling program patterned after Little League baseball and football’s Punt, Pass & Kick program, and it’s open to both boys and girls.

Golf’s version didn’t start until last year, and then in only four cities. It affiliated with the PGA of America in January.

Chicago came into the program for youngsters between the ages of 9-13 this year at just Pine Meadow, in Mundelein, and Cog Hill, in Lemont. The League’s national championship will start at Medinah on Sept. 14 with a skills’ competition and dinner. The following two days will feature team matches on Cog Hill’s No. 2 course followed by an awards ceremony.

“Last year there were 16 teams in the nation. This year there were 127,’’ said Dennis Johnson, head professional at Pine Meadow and captain of the Chicago team in the finals. “I thought it was stupid at first, but it’s an incredible program.’’

The format consists of a series of nine-hole two-player scramble matches with players getting jerseys (with numbers). It was only Pine Meadow vs. Cog Hill this year, and the Jemsek Golf facilities played four matches before Johnson picked an “all-league’’ team to participate in the national finals.

Next year he hopes to have 32 teams, with other Chicago clubs joining in.

“I will turn away no kid, but they can’t be raw beginners and they have to have clubs,’’ said Johnson. Some instruction and golf balls as well as the jerseys are part of the signup fee, which Johnson projects to be in the $150-200 range.

The program will get major exposure during and after the national championship. In addition to bringing teams from Boca Raton, FL.; Atlanta, Houston, San Francisco and Northern New Jersey to Medinah for the start of the national finals, Johnson’s Chicago team will return on the Wednesday of Ryder Cup week (SEPT 26) for an up-close look at the big global event. Their visit will be filmed for future promotional efforts.

Other members of the Illinois Section of the PGA, meanwhile, spent the summer conducting the Ryder Cup Youth Skills Challenge that will culminate with finals at Medinah on Sept. 22, three days before the pros arrive.

There were 57 local competitions, all free to youngsters who competed in age groups ranging from 6-8 to 15-17, and they drew over 3,000 participants. About 500 top finishers in those events qualified for regionals that were held at Oak Brook, Pine Meadow, Cog Hill and Cantigny, in Wheaton.

“As anticipated, it has been an overwhelming success,’’ said Michael Miller, IPGA executive director. “The event has truly allowed the community to embrace the enthusiasm and excitement of having the Ryder Cup right here in our backyard.’’

Those in the finals will receive free admission to the opening day of Ryder Cup week at Medinah.

Biggest of the junior adjuncts to the Ryder Cup, however, is the Junior Ryder Cup – a most competitive team event pitting the very best 17-and-under players from the U.S. and Europe. They’ll compete at Olympia Fields on Sept. 24-25 after three days of practice and opening ceremonies and then hold a more informal Friendship Bowl nine-hole match on Sept. 26 at Medinah in the final days before the main matches tee off.

Roger Warren is the captain of the U.S. squad. A teacher and coach at Dundee Crown High School and the Illinois Math & Science Academy, he got started in the business side of golf at Village Links of Glen Ellyn in 1986. He left the Links in 1991 to direct the operation at Seven Bridges, in Woodridge, through 2003. He went on to become national president of the PGA in 2005 and is now president of the Kiawah Resort in South Carolina, the site of this year’s PGA Championship.

“I couldn’t be more excited about the Junior Ryder Cup,’’ said Warren. “I’m looking forward to it because of my background in high school coaching and because of the quality of the junior golfers who are on the team. They’ll all be great players and good people.’’

Warren’s team of six boys and six girls features Robby Shelton of Wilmer, AL., who won the Junior PGA boys title in Ft. Wayne, Ind., last month, and Beau Hossler, of Mission Viejo, CA., who qualified for the last two U.S. Opens. Hossler, 17, was a sensation at this year’s Open at San Francisco’s Olympic Club when he tied for 29th and became the youngest player to survive the tourney’s 36-hole cut since World War II.

The girls portion of the team is led by Alison Lee, of Valencia, CA., who led the points list off a nationwide series of tournaments to determine the automatic qualifiers for the team.

The Junior Ryder Cup has been contested seven times, the U.S. winning in 1997, 2008 and 2010 and Europe winning in 1999, 2002 and 2004. The 2006 competition, in Wales, was halved, so the series is all even at 3-3-1 going into the Olympia Fields event.