Va. junior golf team headed to national championships

The 13-and-under golf team from 1757 Golf Club in Loudoun County will be one of just 12 teams from a pool of 5,000 nationwide vying for the national championship in Arizona this weekend.

DULLES, Va. — The sun is setting, flushing a tapestry of autumn clouds in pinks and purples as a chilly wind whips across the open fairways. The kids, in matching, slate warmups, are more consumed with the next round of putts and whether or not it will win them free ice cream. It’s the parents watching, scattered around the green as each adolescent drops in a dart of an approach shot, who are shivering. But everyone’s dreaming of the promise of brilliant sunshine and blue skies above the Arizona desert for which they’ll soon depart.

That promise will be fulfilled this weekend, as the 1757 Golf Club 13-U golf team will travel to Scottsdale’s Grayhawk Golf Club as one of just 12 teams of about 5,000 around the country to compete for the PGA Junior League National Championship.

The junior program at 1757 has only been around for five years, but it has progressed a stage further each year competitively. Starting with just 10 kids the first year, it swelled to two teams of 16 the next year, then placed second in regionals the third year.

This year, though, has been dominant. After beating a dozen teams to win the sectionals on their home course, the team traveled to Charlotte and topped a four-state group from Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina to earn their spot in Arizona this weekend.

That brought coach Scott Holmes to a crucial decision point, trying to make sure a crew of 11 to 14 year olds (some have had a birthday since the Aug. 1 cutoff) get the most out of the experience in front of them without putting too much pressure on them.

“I gave them a choice,” he explained, upon the return from Charlotte. “Do you guys want to win this, or just have a good time?”

The consensus was to go for it. So Holmes has been devising specific drills in their twice-a-week practices, trying to pair teammates with complementary abilities together for the two- and three-man scramble format that the tournament uses to maximize the team’s chance of success. An Alabama football fan, Holmes has also taken a page out of Nick Saban’s book.

Through personal connections, he knew former NFL wide receivers Antwaan Randle El and Darrell Jackson, both of whom live in the area. Each stopped by in separate visits to give encouragement to the group, preaching preparation in advance and relaxation in the moment itself.

The PGA has invested heavily in the youth game in recent years to try to appeal to the next generation, including this tournament. The airfare? Covered by the PGA. Same with hotel room for every player’s family and each coach. Oh, and those uniforms as well: purple and gray for the mid-Atlantic champs.

One would think the PGA would be head over heels to see a team like 1757’s roll in and do well. Headlined by accomplished junior golfer Sihan Sandhu, the group of 10 is wildly diverse in breakdown, despite the players all hailing from within a few miles of the Loudoun County course.

As you might expect, the team also reflects a wide swath of adolescence, from precision putters waiting on a growth spurt to tall, lanky teens that can boom the ball nearly 300 yards. Rylan Shim, a 13 year old from Centreville, is the latter. He’s been with the program since the beginning, growing with it as it’s come to fruition.

“I think our chemistry on our team is just the best it’s ever been,” he said of this year’s squad. “Everybody can trust everybody. Everybody has everybody’s back. Everything matched up, the stars aligned, and this year was our year.”

Like Little League Baseball, there are other levels of junior golf, but this one is the big one — the one you’ll see on television, the last stage before kids start to splinter off to high school teams and individual coaches. For Shim, that added a sense of urgency to making sure he got the most out of this year.

“This is my last year doing it before I’ll age out, and I just really wanted to get there,” he said. “I think everybody else just had this super, super drive to get there. And I think our goal was to make it here, but now that we made it, it’s just beyond our expectations.”

They almost didn’t get there. Needing just a split of their final hole in Charlotte, sitting on the green in regulation, their competitors gave them a scare.

“They almost actually chipped in,” said Tommy Lam, a 14 year old from McLean in his first year with the team, who has only been golfing for about 18 months. “Everybody’s heart stopped when they were hitting, but we two-putted and secured the par.”

Now that they’ve made it, the first goal — other than enjoying the warm weather — is to try to survive Saturday and Sunday.

“We’d love to win it, but our goal is to make it to Monday afternoon,” said Holmes, referencing the fact that the final four will compete in a televised event (which won’t air until Dec. 5). “That would be phenomenal, to get to see the kids on TV.”

You can follow the team’s progress online this weekend at pgajuniorleague.com.

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