The afternoon sunshine and gentle breezes have created some comfortable conditions this Sunday, March 8, at the Woodley Lakes Golf Course in Van Nuys. And the sounds emanating from the course are typical ones: bags full of clubs being jostled, and the pounding of golf balls at the driving range as players either warm up or work on their swings.
There are some different sounds as well: tiny shrieks of laughter, followed by adult voices continually guiding the very youthful cadre before them back to the reason for being out here today. And yes, there is the occasional sound of a ball being hit.
Approximately 15-20 girls, ages ranging from 4 to 13, are here discovering the game of golf. They are taking part in a new program at Woodley Lakes called Girls Golf of San Fernando Valley, sponsored in part by the Southern California Golf Association’s (SCGA) through its foundation. Girls Golf is now in its third month and offered every second Sunday of the month. The cost is minimal— $5 for two hours of rudimentary instruction and games.
The return? Hopefully creating friendships and exposure to a sport people can play most of their lives.
“It’s a way we hope to grow the game, because we do a lot of fun stuff,” said Lauren Fesler, lead instructor and program coordinator. “We want the kids to come back to golf so it’s not so challenging.”
“We want them to have a good time with their friends. And try to make golf exciting for them. For a lot of our girls, they’ve never played golf before; often this is their first day. And it’s a great way for them to fall in love with the sport,” Fesler said.
Each month will have a different theme, Felser said. This being March, nods to St. Patrick’s Day are seen all over the space allotted for the kids this day. Chipping and putting areas have been set up in two separate places. The youngest players are using SNAG (Starting New at Golf) equipment — plastic clubs with oversized club heads, and larger golf balls that are easier to strike.
“It helps the kids hit good shots, and it will help them have a good time,” Fesler said.
Kaycee Wilke is the director of player and youth instruction for the SCGA Junior Golf Foundation. She helped develop the first Girls Golf chapter for the Don Knabe Golf Course in Norwalk, and was instrumental in bringing a similar chapter to the San Fernando Valley.
“The SCGA wants to make sure we lower the barriers to the entry of the game for those underserved populations, and one of those is girls,” Wilke said. “We want to make sure girls have a fun and safe place where they can play with other girls, see other role models, and see other people like them play the game.
“Our goal is to keep it affordable; a barrier to entry into golf can be the price tag,” she said, referring to the cost of equipment and fees to play on public and/or private courses. “But the main goal is reaching more girls in the community we’re in. It’s great to have girls coming from outside the community, but we really want to expose golf to girls in this community specifically.”
“I wish that when I was young I’d had a program like this,” said Courtney Ploadpliew, working as an instructor Sunday along with Fesler, Wilke and Blanca Giron. “I was mainly in a group of boys [when she first learned to play]. I still play, but I don’t do competition anymore, just play for fun.”
But she is enjoying working with kids, although the attention spans of her students can be fleeting even in the best of times.
“What can be eye-opening for them is a lot of girls do play, even though it’s considered a ‘guy’ kind of sport,” she said. “Having fun is the number one priority, I think, at least. And golf is something they can all do together.”
There’s also something golf can teach even to its youngest beginners.
“This is really, really a big game about patience,” Ploadpliew said. “I’ve learned growing up, you have to learn not to worry about other shots. You’re on the course by yourself. If you hit a bad shot, you have to brush it off. When it comes to golf, mentally, you have to be patient.”
Will Basel, who resides in Van Nuys with his family, has brought his daughter Ella, 7. He and his wife watched proudly with other parents as the kids took their swings.
He said Ella was enjoying an all-girl atmosphere, and learning the game.
“She does [other sports], but this has been the most consistent one so far,” Basel said. “She tells me she has a lot of fun running around in the outdoors, and the challenge behind the game; that there’re days when it’s more fun, and days that are more challenging. She’s finding herself in the game.”
Fesler emphasized the instructive aspect of the program — proper stance, grip and how to swing the club.
“You start with those fundamentals, because even if you are an advanced player you can sometimes forget those fundamentals,” Fesler said. “Golf is always about practicing what you know. But it’s definitely about giving them instruction because you want the kids to be successful. We’re not just gonna give them a club and say, ’do what you want.’”
One thing that doesn’t have to be taught: how it feels when you hit the ball, and it goes where you want it to go.
Near the end of the two-hour session, one youngster who had struggled at times to hit the ball or keep it on the green when she did, finally hit a shot that not only stayed on the green, but nestled inside one of the targets laid out for the players.
“Yesss!” she exalted, throwing her arms skyward in triumph.