"Everyone better watch those little guys," a spectator said at the second annual Birch Ridge Golf Association Junior Tournament. "They're going to be good."
With talent and comprehension beyond their years, the juniors playing in Thursday's tournament proved that youth, dedication and spirit can supercharge a golf game.
"We're out here rain or shine," Matt Matarrese said.
Senior citizens who play golf often urge those considering taking up the game to start at a young age. At the July 28 Senior Open held at Birch Ridge, several golfers in their golden years said they would advise teenagers to make use of their strength and agility and pick up a golf club. They said growing up with the game can lead to a better appreciation of the sport.
"I started playing when I was seven," Birch Ridge's resident golf pro Tom Walsh said at Thursday's Junior Tournament. "I learned on a dirt golf course. Those are sand greens."
Walsh coached golf in high school and college. He now shares his golf expertise with the youngsters of Soldotna. He said he teaches technique and emphasizes the importance of appropriate behavior.
"We push etiquette. We stress that as much as anything," Walsh said.
Walsh has successfully instilled a respect of the game in the young golfers at Birch Ridge. All 13 playing in the Junior Tournament were well-behaved during the competition.
"When it comes to tournament time, it's serious," Matt Vasile said.
Vasile played the 18-hole tournament with Ben Tikka and Josh Lansing. The boys said they were glad that the sun was out, but thought that the mosquitoes were a nuisance. Still, they all agreed that the course was in good shape and that the weather at this year's tournament was an improvement over last year's showers.
Lansing, Tikka and Vasile started playing golf early this season when there was still snow on the course.
"In the very beginning, we had to wear boots," Lansing said.
A Soldotna Middle School student, Tikka said that his fondness for golf continues to grow with him.
"I've been playing for a couple years. I started before but never really got into it. I just started liking the sport," he said. "It's a pretty mental game."
Even though at nine-years old he was the youngest golfer playing in the Jr. Tournament, Taylor "Tigger" Jackson's precision putting enabled him to hold his own against the older boys.
Entering the back nine, Jackson was in second place with 43 strokes, trailing his brother Brennen by two.
Taylor finished strong at the Jr. Open. On hole 17, he nearly hit the pin and managed to score a birdie. On the final hole he raced Brennen, Zach Cowan and Aaron Andrus to the cup and swiftly wrapped things up with one solid putt from behind the hole.
"Taylor's the man," Nick Horn said after watching Jackson sink the final shot.
Horn's own game on Thursday matched Jackson's in concentration and focus. He won the 15- to 17-year-old age bracket, finishing five strokes ahead of his closest competitors. Horn earned the day's best score with 77.
Horn said he was strong coming off the tee in the tournament and was grateful his putting was able to hold up. He shaved nine strokes off his score from last year.
This year's turnout wasn't as big as last year, but spectators at the game agreed that the pre-teen and teen-age golfers who did play are some of the best on the Peninsula.
Brennen Jackson said he was having a good time on the course and wasn't sure why so few kid choose not to come.
"They should've," he said. "It's nice out."
Birch Ridge owner Pat Cowan said he suspected there was a connection between the low enrollment numbers and the stellar performance by the Soldotna youth golfers at the Kenai Golf Course Junior Tournament.
"I think we scared some of the competition," Cowan said. "In Kenai, our kids won every flight."
On Tuesday, Jackson came out on top of the eight and nine-year olds. Golfing in the tournament's youngest flight, the eight and nine-year olds' competition was six holes long and played off modified tees.
Competing against the largest field in the Kenai tournament's history, Brennen Jackson took first place and Zach Cowan came in second for among players ages 10 through 12. Rose won the 16 to 18 flight.
Rose, 17, said he enjoys playing against golfers his own age, but thinks older golfers are more competitive. Matarreese, 15, competed head-to-head against Rose in a playoff to break a tie for first after 18 holes as both golfers carded a round of 82.
Settling the score at the course's first hole, Rose drove his ball left, positioning himself directly behind a birch tree, while Matarreese took the straight approach. Rose easily arched his ball up over the tree, and landed it on the green within two yards of the cup.
Matarreese rocketed his second shot straight and hard, and his ball landed next to Rose's in front of the cup. Rose broke the tie by sinking his putt where Matarreese could not.
"I hit the ball good, but I made a few mistakes," Matarreese said. "In golf, the second you lose concentration it's over."
BRGA Junior Tournament
Thursday at Birch Ridge Golf Course
Ages 9 - 12
Zach Cowan 44-42 -- 86
Brennen Jackson 41-46 -- 87
Taylor Jackson 43-46 -- 89
Aaron Andrus 59-57 --116
Ages 13 - 14
Josh Lansing 43-44 -- 87
Ben Tikka 49-45 -- 94
Matt Vasile 53-52 --105
Ages 15 - 17
Nick Horn 37-40 -- 77
Nolan Rose 41-41 -- 82
Matt Matarrese 41-41 -- 82
Neil Mueller 52-43 -- 95
Norton Dablemont 60-51 --111
Ryan Hatfield 65-71 --136
Kenai Golf Course Junior Tournament
Tuesday at Kenai Golf Course
Boys Ages 8 - 9
1st -- Taylor Jackson; 2nd -- Chance Irwin; 3rd -- Alex Sonnichsen.
Girls Ages 8 - 9
1st (tie) -- Eun Young Cho, Hannah Delaney.
Girls Ages 10 - 12
1st -- Eun Hye Cho; 2nd -- Kelsey Megchelsen.
Boys Ages 10 -12
1st -- Brennan Jackson; 2nd -- Zach Cowan; 3rd -- Brian Herring.
Boys Ages 13 - 15
1st -- Matt Matterese; 2nd -- Tony Azzara; 3rd -- Owen Brewer.
Boys Ages 16 - 18
1st -- Nolan Rose; 2nd -- Devon Anderson; 3rd -- Travis Schreiner.
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