Cantigny Youth Links is not your father's golf course

By Dave Berner, Senior Contributor

WHEATON, Ill. - It's a busy morning at the Cantigny Youth Links. The mini-vans pull up in the clubhouse parking lot one after another and children spill out like kids from a school bus.

The kids wear Titleist caps, carry junior stand bags, and some wear real golf shoes. And they are everywhere; eight in the pro shop, six on the putting green, and three stepping up to tee-it-up at for a mid-morning tee time.

"That's on the green. Good shot," says Chris Wallace, 12, who's playing with his regular buddies and complementing his older friend's tee shot on the 160-yard opening hole.

"Good job," says the starter, Liz Ennen, from her booth just behind the first tee. "These kids are such a kick."

It's like this nearly every summer day at the Cantigny Youth Links in Wheaton. A golf course designed for kids to play by themselves with no grownups around to stifle the fun. It's not a dinky, maintenance challenged, pitch-and-putt, where people just bang balls, ride around in carts, and drink a few beers. Nothing of the sort. The 20-acre Youth Links (Augusta's par-3 course is on 18 acres) was designed by Roger Packard and Andy North, one of the game's top design teams. It has its own just-as-good-as-the-adult's clubhouse, a real head pro who handles the Youth Links only, rangers, a starter, and a complete tee time system - just like the grownups.

"It's nine holes, short holes, essentially par-3s, but we don't officially assign them par," says Youth Links' head professional Patrick Lynch. "The greens are large and undulating so the kids can learn how the ball breaks."

And learning is certainly part of the process here.

The children, mainly 8-13 year olds, must go through a clinic to play the course without adult supervision. There are five sessions that focus mainly on safety and etiquette. Once they pass the clinic each child gets a certification card that permits play without a grownup by their side.

"An adult can play with a child anytime," says Lynch, pointing out that happens a lot on Father's Day and other holidays. "But this truly is the kids' course. It's their place. We tell them that and ask them to take responsibility for taking care of it, and even making their own tee times. Kids learn the game and life skills as well."

And kids can get as involved as they want - play with friends or compete in tournaments at the course.

None of the holes is over 160 yards, but that doesn't make them super easy. There are bunkers and water to deal with giving the kids a chance to use all their clubs and face all kinds of adult-golf situations.

"It's really cool to watch them learn in front of your eyes," says Lynch.

"We're out here once a week," says Eric Battle, 13, part of that mid-morning threesome now heading for the first green. "It's really nice, even compared to some adult courses."

"I like it a lot," says Eric's 11-year-old brother, Brent. "They keep it up."

"And the Gatorade's not two dollars," adds Eric. Something he says he gets tired of when he goes out to play on an adult course. In fact, you can find a golf shirt in the pro shop here for less than $20.

"Our place (for juniors) is better than any private club or other course. They can't do what we do," says Lynch. "We certify close to a thousand kids a season."

But as well-run and top-notch as Cantigny Youth Links is, Lynch's comment is both good and worrisome news for golf.

With so much talk in the golf industry and community about growing the game, building up junior programs, and putting the family aspect into golf, it might appear obvious that what's being done so successfully at Cantigny Youth Links should be copied all around the country. So why isn't it?

"There's no money in junior golf," says Lynch.

Although there are many course managers who may admire, even envy, what Cantigny is doing for kids, they know doing it is just not cost efficient. In fact, they know they would be dumping money into the black hole of golf.

"We are not to the break-even point at this facility yet. Our goal is to make it break even overall," says Mike Jones, head golf professional for the entire complex at Cantigny Golf and Tennis. "Could we charge more? Maybe, but we want to make it more than affordable and keep the kids involved."

Cantigny, though, is unique. It has the luxury of keeping prices down and giving the program time to grow.

"Colonel McCormick wanted all of this land to be for recreational use; not for profit. He wanted to educate," says Lynch.

Robert R. McCormick, founder of the Chicago Tribune, donated his estate and all his land to the public but with one condition - none of the land could be developed for anything other than recreation and education. Cantigny Park includes the golf course, a museum, formal gardens, open park land, and the Youth Links. The entire facility is run under the Robert R. McCormick Tribune Foundation permitting financial freedom and flexibility of the kind other public courses, and even private courses, can't match. And that's a real dilemma for those in the golf industry who truly want more people, young people, coming into the game.

"The main goal is to create an environment that teaches juniors the game of golf in a friendly, non-intimidating and fun atmosphere," says Jones adding the Youth Links is not trying to create the next Tiger Woods. "These kids will grow up to be golfers and either play here as adults or as they move out of the area will play golf all over and hopefully spread the word about our facility and what we are trying to do for the game."

The verdict

In a world where a lot of courses talk a good game about encouraging junior play, Cantigny really does it in a big way. This may be the premier youth golf course in the country and it's as well run as the adult course, Cantigny Golf and Tennis, just down the street. If the golf industry and community could find a way to make these kinds of courses more economically viable then maybe "growing the game" would really mean something.

Dining out

The Fareways Restaurant
Cantigny Golf and Tennis Clubhouse
27W270 Mack Road
Wheaton, Ill.
(630) 668-3323

Places to stay

Best Western Four Seasons Hotel
675 Roosevelt Road
Glen Ellyn, Ill.
(630) 469-8500

Holiday Inn
150 South Gary Ave.
Carol Stream, Ill.
(630) 665-3000

Dave BernerDave Berner, Senior Contributor

Dave Berner is a long-time journalist for CBS radio in Chicago and has freelanced for CNN, National Public Radio, and ABC news. He created and produced the popular radio feature "The Golf Minute" for CBS-owned radio station WMAQ in Chicago along with writing a regular column for Golf Chicago Magazine. He is also author of "Any Road Will Take You There: A journey of fathers and sons" and "Accidental Lessons: A Memoir of a Rookie Teacher and a Life Renewed." Follow Berner on Twitter @DavidWBerner

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