Owen Farino takes a practice swing at the Hopewell Valley Golf and Country Club driving range, Oct. 13, 2017. (Photo by Mike Schwartz/mikeschwartz.photo.)

Youth participation is down in almost every sport, and golf is no exception. But at the Hopewell Valley’s two golf courses, new initiatives like the PGA Jr. League may be well on their way to reversing the trend.

The Professional Golf Association of America started the PGA Jr. League in 2011 intent on drawing more kids to the game. Clubs host teams who participate against other club teams in 9-hole, 2-player scrambles. Girls and boys play together wearing shirts with numbers on them, as in other team sports.

PGA Jr. Leaguers take part in a practice session on Oct. 13, 2017 at the Hopewell Valley Golf and Country Club driving range. Eric Savas watches one of his shots.

Both Hopewell Valley Golf and Country Club and Stonybrook Golf Club have teams who compete either on their home course against teams visiting from other clubs, or at other clubs’ courses. Clubs with teams in the area include Trenton Country Club in Ewing, Forsgate Country Club in Monroe and Old York Country Club in Chesterfield. Teams are led by PGA or LPGA professionals based at the clubs who coach the players on the courses.

The league is for kids of all skill levels. Teams generally have 16 players, with 8 competing in a given day’s matches.

Dave Gilman, assistant golf professional at Hopewell Valley, said if teams have more than eight players, the pros will sub players in and out of matches after three, six or nine holes. “They have fun and it’s a good way to get introduced to the game,” he said.

Players also sometimes receive instruction between matches from the professionals on the practice ranges of their home or nearby courses. The local PGA Jr. League finishes up its fall schedule this month, so on a blustery Friday in October, players from both the Hopewell Valley and Stonybrook teams were practicing at Hopewell Valley under the watchful eyes of Gilman and Joe Porter, the head pro at Stonybrook.

Jack Farino watches one of of his practice shots.

Like Jack and Owen Farino of the Hopewell Valley team. Jack wears number 4, while Owen wears number 17. The left-handed brothers are in their first year in the league, after having participated in Hopewell Valley’s most recent golf summer camp. Jack, 9, attends Hopewell Elementary School. Owen, 11, goes to Timberlane Middle School.

Or like Eric Savas, number 3 on the Stonybrook team. The 10-year-old Pennington resident is in his second year in the fall league. In between enthusiastically whacked driver shots at the range, Eric said his favorite thing about the PGA Jr. League is hitting the ball over the Stony Brook Creek on Hopewell Valley’s 1st hole.

Dan Savas, Eric’s father, said he first learned about the league from Porter. The Savas family had seen an article in the Hopewell Express about Porter teaching golf to kids with autism spectrum disorder. They took Eric, who is on the spectrum, to see Porter for some lessons, and the rest is history.

Joaquin Trujillo receives instruction from Stonybrook Golf Club PGA pro Joe Porter (not pictured).

Dan Savas had never been a golfer himself, but he has enjoyed seeing Eric build his golf skills through playing in the league. Eric attends Toll Gate Grammar School. Both Dan Savas and his wife Cheryl work in finance.

Another Stonybrook player practicing that day was Joaquin Trujillo, 10. Trujillo, a Pennington resident, wears number 4 for the Stonybrook team, and is in his third year on the team. His brother Rafael, 13, used to be on the team, but quit to focus on his robotics club at Timberlane.

Trujillo said for him, matches aren’t even the most fun part of being in the league. It’s being at the driving range, where he can see how far his shots go. (Most ranges have distance markers to aid players in tracking their shots.)

Joaquin’s father, Manuel, said Joe Porter is a great mentor for the kids. “Joe has a great technique,” he said. “He’s very personal and he gets them right at ease.”

Manuel Trujillo, father of Joaquin, observing the action. (Photos by Mike Schwartz/mikeschwartz.photo.)

Neither Manuel, who runs a company in the technology sector, nor his wife Margarita, a stay-at-home mom, had played much golf before the boys started playing. But Joaquin delighted in telling a memorable story he had heard from one of Manuel’s first times out on the links, which happened several years ago.

Joaquin told me his dad was working for Motorola when he took part in a company outing at the TPC of Scottsdale, in Arizona. On a short par-three hole, he teed off hit his ball into some trees. The ball bounced around in the trees, landed on a rock, and bounced onto the green and in for a hole in one.

“Afterward they were recording it and they asked me what club I used and I said a seven iron,” Manuel added. “They said, ‘No, don’t say that,’ because the hole was too short for a seven iron. But I didn’t know, it was one of my first times playing.” The Trujillos have played many times as a family since the boys took up the game.

The PGA reports that nationwide, more than 42,000 kids ages 7–13 participated in 2017. If you are interested in signing your kids up for next year’s spring, summer or fall leagues, contact Hopewell Valley Golf Club at (609) 466-3000 or Stonybrook Golf Club at (609) 466-2215.