Denver-area summer golf programs boost kids’ love of the links
On the golf course at Indian Tree stands a giant, green, inflatable dinosaur that looks like Godzilla.
“Not Godzilla,” Rudy Castaneda said. “It’s called Golfzilla.”
Castaneda, an assistant head professional at Indian Tree, bought Golfzilla last summer for the junior golf program.
Kids from 5 through 10 work on their chipping by trying to hit the giant, inflatable dinosaur.
One boy with blond hair and thick-framed glasses yells when his ball strikes Golfzilla on the nose. Some are completely off target, but they keep chipping away.
“It’s just about having fun and giving them different drills to do with their chipping,” Castaneda said. “You just got to keep them entertained for an hour. If they don’t like it, they’re not going to enjoy it. That’s the main focus.”
This week is the last of three summer sessions of Indian Tree’s junior golf program, and its unique targets, such as Golfzilla, are among the quirks that bring back kids each summer. The program started in 1980 with 30 kids. Now, it has grown to average 250 to 300 kids each summer.
It is one of many junior programs that have grown over the years across the Denver area. Many don’t rely on advertising, instead preferring word of mouth. Yet, that’s not the main reason parents sign their kids up for the programs.
“The first priority is fun, fun, fun,” said Alan Abrams, Indian Tree’s PGA golf operations manager and head golf pro. “We want to make sure these kid wake up and can’t wait to play golf.”
Abrams is the pioneer of the junior program and the brains behind the innovative targets throughout the years.
When he was handed the job in 1980, Abrams brought the golf program to local schools, introducing kids to the game, which in turn brought them to Indian Tree. Other schools across Denver also asked Abrams to come to their schools.
He would create different targets — such as a hot air balloon, Coke cans stacked in the form of a castle, painted truck tires and boards with pictures of Batman — for kids to hit and developed putting games that rewarded them in the end.
Matt Bryant, general manager and director at Green Valley Golf Ranch, was one of the first students in Abrams’ program.
“The thing I remember about Alan was that he was fun and used cartoonish-type things,” Bryant said. “That’s what got me and others hooked. He’s definitely one of my mentors.”
A Jolly Rancher factory was not too far from Indian Tree, and Abrams would get boxes of the hard candy to hand out as rewards.
Since 1997, Abrams has earned the Junior Golf Leader Award, as well as five PGA President’s Council on Growing the Game awards.
“It gave me direction in what I want to do,” Abrams said. “It pinpointed the good things I’m doing at Arvada. Just to feel like I could reach out and do some goofy things each year is rewarding.”
Many instructors and volunteers teaching the kids were part of the junior program themselves — including Castaneda. He was one of the first to join the program under Abrams and is in the second generation of workers at Indian Tree leading the junior program.
Instead of Jolly Ranchers, he hands out Tootsie Pops at the end of his sessions.
“It’s not a secret what we do here,” Castaneda said. “We’re trying to get them interested in the game and have them say: ‘All right, I can do this. This is fun.’”