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More kids want to be like Tiger

June 11, 1997

By GUY FLETCHER

Staff Writer

Swinging a club that's nearly as tall as he is, 8-year-old Brendan Benisek drives the golf ball nearly 150 yards down the middle of the driving range.

"You can find me almost any day here," the Williamsport youth said during a recent afternoon at Yingling's Golf Center.

He began playing golf three years ago, when his father took up the game, and has enjoyed playing casually ever since. But now he has found something that has raised his interest to a higher level: Tiger Woods.

"I just got more into golf," Brendan said. "It's kind of boring to watch golf on TV, but when you're really playing it it's really exciting."

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He's not alone.

Boys and girls are taking to driving ranges and golf courses in greater numbers, area golf officials said, often because they want to be just like Tiger.

"You hear that all the time," said Dave Grier, a golf instructor and owner of Yingling's.

This year, about 180 school-age golfers will participate in the Washington County Junior Golf Association's summer program. That's about a 20 percent increase over the 150 young people who took part in last year's program, said Mark Weber, club professional at Beaver Creek Country Club.

While Weber and other area golf officials attribute much of the recent increase to the fact that more young people already were taking up golf, they also see the potential for an additional boost from Woods' star quality.

"I think it's too soon to measure, but I think it will have a phenomenal influence," said Ray Johnston, co-owner of The Woods golf resort west of Hedgesville, W.Va.

"This is one of the most exciting things that's ever happened in sports," Johnston said of Woods' emergence onto the national scene.

On April 13, less than eight months after turning pro, the 21-year-old Woods won the Masters Tournament by an unprecedented 18 strokes under par. In doing so, he became the youngest person and the first minority ever to win the Masters.

Several youths say Woods has drawn them to the sport because he doesn't fit the stereotypical golfer mold: He's relatively young, and he has a multiethnic heritage. Also, children can relate to Woods because he began playing the game at a young age - he began swinging a golf club when he was 2 years old.

"I think he's neat. He's young, he's good and he doesn't have a bad attitude. He's a good role model," said A.J. Smith, 14, of Hagerstown.

"I watch him (on television) to see if he can make a hole in one," said Scott Mummert, an 8-year-old golfer from Williamsport.

Adult golfers said Woods offers something the game of golf hasn't had in years - a figure children can watch with the same awe usually reserved for sports icons like Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky. And that can't be bad for the game, they said.

"Everybody wants to be like Michael Jordan. Everybody wants to be like Tiger," said John Rogers, club professional at Majestic Ridge Golf Course near Chambersburg, Pa.

But Rogers said the children swinging 9-irons today are the offshoot of a boom in golf that goes back to the mid-1980s, when youngsters like Woods headed to the links in unprecedented numbers.

He said the construction of more public courses in the area has made the game more accessible and has dispelled the "country club mentality" that surrounded the sport. People also could relate better to the athletes, he said.

"There is nowhere else in no other sport ... that Joe Average Public can go and participate on the same playing field the professional athletes do," Rogers said.

Because golfers compete against themselves, there is no minimum age for starting, he said.

"As long as they have an interest level, that's all that matters," Rogers said.

Grier said the only problem with so much youth participation might be that many young players might not have the equipment they need.

Many would-be youth golfers don't own their own clubs, and the Junior Golf Association has been trying to get people to donate their old equipment for youngsters to use.

"That would be a big help for us," Grier said.

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