This article appears in the May 2019 edition of Full Swing, the NEPGA monthly Newsletter.
By Nick Heidelberger, New England PGA Staff
Darren Falk, PGA, has 3-year old golfers squaring up picture-perfect – proportionally, of course – fairway-splitting drives at Holly Ridge Golf Club, and for that he should get an award. Justice will be served this November when Falk accepts the New England PGA’s Youth Player Development Award.
When Darren, alongside co-owners Joe and Jennifer O’Connor, began developing the Holly Ridge (Sandwich, Mass.) youth program in 2016, there were a dozen or so kids participating once-a-week. That number has more than quadrupled to 75-80 kids this year, with programs four days a week. While Falk enjoys every minute of his youth programs, he admits the 3-5 year-old group is “usually the most fun we have all week.”
“We get some kids whose parents play golf and they can really hit it quite well,” he continued. “We had a 3-year old last year and every swing it was a solid driver carrying 25 to 30 yards.”
The tykes spend 30 minutes working on their game each week, while the 6-13 year-old groups take part in 50-minute weekly sessions over a seven-week program. If that sounds like an overwhelming amount of golf for a young age group, then you haven’t witnessed Falk’s youth programs first-hand.
“Each week we have a different theme,” Falk explained. “We’ll do favorite sports team week and with me being a Giants and Yankees fan we always have fun with that when I wear my Eli Manning jersey with the New England crowd. We have favorite super-hero week, where we have the kids, and myself included, dress up like their favorite super-hero. Our goal is for the kids to purely have fun, and without them knowing it, they’re actually getting better at golf.”
Falk’s philosophy fits Holly Ridge perfectly. The facility boasts one of the best practice and learning centers in the country – at least according to Golf Digest – providing juniors the perfect place to develop their skills. The full suite of practice areas includes a deep, 30-stall driving range, large practice green, and a sand and short-game area, allowing golfers of all ages to sharpen every aspect of their game.
When it’s time to hit the course, Holly Ridge offers an 18-hole par-3 course that gives young golfers the opportunity to learn on a manageable layout. Kids play for free with an adult on weekends, and kids who participate in a Holly Ridge junior program play for free with an adult anytime.
“Being a short course certainly helps,” Falk said. “It’s much easier for a kid to go out and play with their mom or dad when they’re playing from 100 yards as opposed to a regulation course, starting off with the tee shot and then dropping in front of the green, or starting from the fairway. Here, they can start at the same spot as their parents, which is great.”
Whether it’s because golf is the sport they naturally gravitate to, or just the one they’re good at, Falk says the enthusiasm and energy the kids bring are what make his youth programs rewarding.
“Just their general desire to be here, they’re always looking to have fun,” he said. “They always bring tons of enthusiasm and a lot of times they just laugh off any bad shot, which any adult golfer knows that’s pretty hard to do. We tend to get a lot of kids that haven’t had success in other sports, whether it’s ability-wise or they just weren’t really interested. That’s the nice thing about golf, there’s no playing time. Everybody can play.”
By 2018 the Holly Ridge youth program had outgrown the condensed golf season that New England offers. But rather than leave his youth golfers in the cold, Darren took his program indoors over the winter. He rented space at a nearby indoor sports facility and set up full-swing, chipping, and putting stations on the field turf. It was enough space to comfortably cater to six golfers at a time and Darren said he plans on expanding the indoor program in the future.
Whether it’s by offering free golf to juniors, helping youngsters perfect their full swing, or simply facilitating an athletic experience for a junior who didn’t latch on to a team sport, Darren has made golf the highlight of the week for dozens of Cape Cod juniors. That makes Falk a great recipient of the 2019 NEPGA Youth Player Development Award.
Falk and the other 2019 NEPGA Special Award Winners will receive their awards at the NEPGA Awards Banquet, Nov. 2 at Cyprian Keyes Golf Club in Boylston, Mass.