Ask all LPGA Tour players about their junior golf experiences and to a person, they will open with the financial sacrifices made by their parents. That’s because junior golf is expensive. Not four-people-at-a-steakhouse kind of expensive, but a mortgage-payment-every-week kind of expensive. Even going cheap, between travel, hotels, food, entry fees and equipment, a summer of competitive junior golf in America costs more than the average Ukrainian family earns in a year. Ask the parent of any junior golfer about the college-scholarship conversations and you’ll likely get a chuckle. That’s because if all the money spent on junior golf had been put into a 529 college savings plan, they could have sent their kids to Harvard.
But this is far from a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s as old as junior golf itself.
Nobody knows that better than LPGA Hall of Famer Judy Rankin. More than 60 years ago, she experienced the squeeze golf can place on a family. And she will forever remember the help she received from others.
“I had this experience as a little girl where my dad entered me in the National Peewee in Orlando,” Rankin told me. “My mother was very ill and we didn’t have a whole lot of money. I played golf at this little 9-hole course (in St. Louis) and the members there gave me a brand-new suitcase with $400 in it. We used that and drove to the National Peewee and actually, I won it. But I will always remember that suitcase with the $400."
Rankin used the memory as the catalyst to form the JTR Suitcase Fund, a charitable organization with the mission of helping middle and high school junior golfers in West Texas with travel funds for summer golf.
“Where I live (in Midland, Texas), I don’t want to call it remote, but it’s smaller little cities and communities,” Rankin said. “And their exposure to professional golf is pretty small. The idea came to be the JTR (Rankin’s initials) Suitcase Fund because we’re trying to take kids who really love golf and/or were very good and cover some of their playing expenses in the summers.
“You don’t have to be very good to get some help from our fund. We are about loving the game, caring about it, having a passion or addiction to play that you might pass along to your family or friends,” Rankin said. “But one of the pluses is that there are some very good players (in our area) and they have been exposed to us. But there are also just some good players who, I think, will play golf for the rest of their lives.”
Also, through a partnership with the Volunteers of America Classic, the JTR Suitcase Fund brings junior golfers to the VOA Classic to experience the championship and compete in the pro-am. On Wednesday, Angela Aguirre, Lainey Cristan, Jules Crow, Ryann Honea and Sara Reid all played in the pro-am and then went to dinner with Texas native and LPGA Hall of Famer Kathy Whitworth.
“There are not a lot of opportunities for us to interact with girls that age unless their families or friends pay for them to play in the pro-ams,” said Esther Lee, who got to play with two of juniors because of Rankin. “I thought it was pretty cool.
“But it felt kind of scary, too, because these girls are not that much younger than I am. It was only four years or so ago that I was in their position, looking up to LPGA Tour players and wanting to be in their position. How we act toward them and how we represent ourselves does influence them. It feels like a huge responsibility. But it’s good because there is advice that I wish I had been told when I was their age by someone playing at this level. When I came here (onto the LPGA Tour), I was so new and so scared. It’s good that they had their chance to ask their questions.”
This is the fifth year the Volunteers of America Classic has partnered with the JTR Suitcase Fund. So far, 25 juniors have had the opportunity to ask players like Lee questions about the Tour, their life and what it means to be a LPGA Tour player.
“It’s not easy to find a lot of young girls where someone will tell you that they need some financial help to go play in the summer,” Rankin said. “But we’ve given a fair amount of money. And we have a fairly simple vetting process. We also now have a process where, if you’ve been accepted and are still playing (golf), we give you money for the rest of your high school years. If we gave it to you as a freshman, then you’ll get help for the three more years coming up.
“All these kids have been pretty good citizens,” Rankin said. “Our mission is to help kids travel their game. Anybody who has been successful in the game will tell you that you have to learn to get out of your own little bubble or your own little part of the state and travel your game. But junior golf is incredibly expensive. Then when you consider the families that have three or four kids, you just get tapped out.“I’m thrilled that we are able to help these kids. And I hope we continue to find those kids who think this is the coolest thing.”