On Grand Strand Golf: Junior Golf Exchange is Kirk’s crowning achievement

ablondin@thesunnews.comDecember 16, 2013 

Accredited LPGA teaching pro Meredith Kirk of Murrells Inlet sits in a golf cart with Dylan and Caleb Gutshall.

SUBMITTED PHOTO

Truth be told, Meredith Kirk of Murrells Inlet had an ulterior motive in entering the Mrs. South Carolina 2014 pageant.

The accredited LPGA teaching pro’s motivation in trying to win the crown was to use the stage to promote and raise awareness for a program she has created to benefit aspiring junior golfers and their families.

The Junior Golf Exchange was launched online last week at www.juniorgolfexchange.org and provides new and used clubs and equipment to children ages 14 and younger at no cost.

Because Kirk, 35, won the competition Nov. 9 in Lexington, she will be promoting the program as Mrs. South Carolina and will compete in the Mrs. America Pageant next August at a site to be determined with the Junior Golf Exchange as her platform.

“If I can win Mrs. America and compete in Mrs. World I want to go all over the nation with this program,” Kirk said. “I seriously want to take it internationally.”

The program relies on parents or donors to donate either new or used children’s clubs to a local drop-off and pick-up location. Clubs have to be complete sets, clean and ready for use in a golf bag.

Juniors will be allowed one upgrade per year through the age of 14 so they will be able to maintain clubs suited to their growth.

“The goal is to keep parents in the U.S. from having to buy golf clubs for kids through the age of 14,” Kirk said. “Unfortunately kids can’t begin to play the game of golf because families can’t afford to get started. … I will do whatever it takes to get kids clubs so they can play the game.”

Kirk, who is married to chiropractor Landon Kirk and has three boys ages 6 to 12, has funded and launched the program essentially on her own.

In addition to occasionally giving lessons over the past four years at Blackmoor Golf Club, Kirk is the coordinator of Myrtle Beach PGA Junior League Golf, a PGA of America-supported program that allows juniors to compete on teams in a scramble format in the spring. Kirk is a part-time spokesperson for National Golf Management, and the company sponsors the three-year league and hosts teams at some of its 22 courses.

Kirk said there have been families that wanted to participate but couldn’t afford the equipment, so she has used her own kids’ clubs, borrowed the clubs of friends’ kids and purchased clubs at discount stores.

The idea for the Junior Golf Exchange came to her one day during a run.

“This is not about teaching golf, it’s about getting equipment into kids’ hands at no cost,” Kirk said. “It’s not an issue of golf programs; we’ve got plenty of good ones. We just have to make the sport more accessible to kids. There’s no reason kids can’t play golf through this program. If you need clubs, you go to a participating course and pick up clubs.”

She began to implement her idea locally this past summer, and it quickly blossomed into a national and possibly international project.

The program’s website has a map of the U.S. and exchange locations can be found by clicking on a state.

A video endorsement from former PGA Tour star Larry Nelson is on the site.

Approximately 25 exchange locations – predominantly golf courses – have registered nationally. “But that number is going to be growing really fast,” Kirk said. “I’m getting so many emails right now I’m almost overwhelmed. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the end of January we had more than 100 courses participating.”

In South Carolina, locations include The Traces Golf Club in Florence, Blackmoor, Lanny Correll’s Dr. Golf shop at Indian Wells Golf Club, and two Coastal Carolina YMCA facilities in Horry and Georgetown counties. Kirk is especially excited about the YMCA’s involvement because it includes children who aren’t involved in golf.

“I’m thrilled if we can get other YMCAs in the nation involved because we’ll be able to reach more children,” she said.

Donors can purchase U.S. Kids Golf clubs through the Junior Golf Exchange website and donate them to a location in the program, which is set up as a non-profit with a tax ID number for tax deductions. The site also has apparel for sale, and 100 percent of proceeds will be used to purchase clubs.

Kirk is seeking volunteers to help her enter course information on the website and help the program grow. She said the site had 10,000 page views from Tuesday through Sunday.

“I can only do so much right now because I’m doing it on my own,” Kirk said. “We need help so it can run efficiently and the goal can be met for kids getting clubs.”

The Junior Golf Exchange is still a grassroots program, as Kirk personally meets or contacts individual course operators to ask them to take part in the program. But as awareness spreads the program may quickly expand.

“I want every town, every city to have this program available,” Kirk said. “If golf equipment is provided, it will be interesting to see if the number of junior golfers increases over the years. Two or three years down the road I’m hoping to see increased participation in golf.”

U.S. Kids exiting

The U.S. Kids Golf Myrtle Beach local tour championship this upcoming Saturday at Barefoot Resort’s Dye Club will be the final U.S. Kids event in Myrtle Beach for the foreseeable future.

Russ Brown, a founder of the Myrtle Beach Golf Foundation who operates The Golf School of Myrtle Beach at River Oaks Plantation, began the local tour chapter in the fall of 2010 and has staged 80 events.

But he said U.S. Kids Golf, featuring tournaments for junior golfers ages 5-14, is not renewing his contract because he was averaging less than 40 players per event, and the organization is starting a new chapter in Charleston. Brown said he was averaging approximately 32 players in his eight-event fall series, which is consistent with his numbers over three seasons of the nearly year-long program.

“I thought I could get there,” said Brown, the former two-year director of the First Tee of Myrtle Beach. “I think it’s purely population. There are only so many kids around here. Everybody says it should be a great area [for junior golf]. But it’s just not like that.”

Prime time player

If Ashley Sloup of Southport, N.C., discovered one thing by playing as the junior partner of Fred Couples in late September in the Champions Tour’s $1.8 million Nature Valley First Tee Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links, she learned she’s not fazed by the big stage.

Her experience may have played a part in her winning the Charles Tilghman Junior Championship on Sunday at the Surf Golf and Beach Club with three consecutive birdies in a playoff.

“I’ve always wanted to play on the LPGA Tour, and when I went to Pebble Beach it definitely made me realize I can do this, I just need to get my golf game together,” said Sloup, 17. “Because there are a lot of good players, but unless you can play in front of a huge crowd, the top players and the cameras it’s kind of a testy situation.”

“… I get nervous in high school golf for some reason, but when I was there I wasn’t nervous at all and I took in every second and loved it all.”

Her participation in the Champions Tour event is the latest benefit she has been able to take from her affiliation with the First Tee of Brunswick County. She also drew from the First Tee’s teachings during her victory Sunday, particularly after her playoff opponent Kelli Murphy drained a 15-foot birdie putt to prolong the playoff on the second playoff hole.

“I did my best to stay confident,” Sloup said. “I’m in the First Tee and that’s one of the core values, so I’m always using those core values. I just kind of thought in my head to take it one shot at a time, and if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”

NGM employee honored

Michelle Kempe, National Golf Management’s retail sales director, is the Carolinas PGA’s 2013 Public Merchandiser of the Year.

Kempe is responsible for overseeing the retail buying, sales and merchandising for NGM’s golf facilities in the Myrtle Beach area. She strives to provide a clean, fun and organized shopping environment combined with outstanding customer service.

According to the CPGA, NGM merchandising concessions in 2012 had gross sales of $2.16 million.

Other CPGA 2013 award winners – Golf Professional: Chad Newton, Pinewood Country Club in Asheboro, N.C.; Teacher: Jason Sutton, Carmel Country Club in Charlotte, N.C.; Horton Smith Trophy for exhibiting a commitment to the development and improvement of golf education for PGA pros: Ed Sehl of Ed Sehl Golf Tega Cay; Bill Strausbaugh Award for mentoring: Tom Ducey, Old North State Club in New London, N.C.; Junior Golf Leader: Ryan Dailey, Campbell University PGM Program; Player Development: Heidi Wright-Tennyson, Moss Creek Golf Club in Hilton Head Island; Assistant Pro: Brian Joyce, Old Chatham Golf Club in Durham, N.C.; Private Merchandiser: Jeff Nichols, Carmel Country Club; Resort Merchandiser: Benjamin Boyter, Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.

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