The Third Annual Pirate Ridge Golf Academy is more than golf to some.
For Abby Dowling, age 8, the golf academy is a chance for her to learn about the game of golf. Of course Dowling also likes the sound when her club hits the ball. “I like the sound it makes,” Dowling said.
Boonville Pirates golf coach Rob VanderLinden, who is the lead instructor for the academy, said the idea at first was to get kids out on the course on a weekly basis instead of just holding a golf camp for one week out of the year and then never seeing the kids again.
“We tried to come up with a program where they are out here at least one night out of the week getting instructions and doing that,” VanderLinden said. “Just the economy of Boonville and everything like that we wanted to get a program started where they were getting new clubs and being able to hit range balls and come out to the course.
“Between Josh Black, myself and my son, Eric, we developed this program to where they are coming out once a week and getting new clubs. But how the whole thing got started, just because of the expense of it, what really helped us out is that when Dean Caldwell passed away he donated half of his memorial money to get us started. Basically the kids are paying $200 but they are getting $400 worth of stuff. There is that cost where we are losing money every year but by having the Caldwell Memorial and holding our golf fundraisers and golf tournaments, that is how we are making it work.”
VanderLinden said 56 kids ages 5-14 have signed up for the academy, which runs from June 3 through August 5.
Along with the instruction and 30 minutes on the driving range and putting green, VanderLinden said the kids also get their own clubs and become a member of Hail Ridge Golf Course for a year.
“They can come out here any day of the week and hit range balls, play golf with mom or dad for free and use the putting greens,” VanderLinden said. “Our goal is to give every kid 30 minutes worth of instruction between the driving range and putting green. From there, members of the high school golf team will take the golfers out on the course and let them play a hole or two.”
VanderLinden said only seven golfers signed up for the first year but then it blossomed to 28 last year and 56 this year.
“It’s really grown and taken off,” VanderLinden said. “Now we are getting adult helpers so we are getting them involved, too.”
The academy started all because of the numbers or lack thereof on the golf team. VanderLinden said 15 years ago the golf team had 25-30 kids but then when he took over the program it was down to just two players.
“I had two kids (Brett Windsor and Eric VanderLinden),” VanderLinden said. “It’s been a struggle getting numbers and then once I do get the numbers, they are first year players. They haven’t touched a club until they are a freshman, so this in turn will help the high school golf program in the future just because they have the experience getting into it if they decide to play golf. I enjoy  doing this. I love being around the kids and it’s a fun night for them.”
A tournament has also been discussed with Eldon and Marshall. VanderLinden said someday the academy will get to the point where they will take a group and go to Eldon or Marshall to participate in a tournament.
Of course the academy isn’t just for kids who can afford to play golf. VanderLinden said Boonville Kiwanis Club sponsors scholarships for the kids that can’t afford the $200. “The Boonville Kiwanis Club has provided scholarships the past two years,” VanderLinden said. “The rest is sponsored by their payments and our golf tournament.”
Of course it just not about the kids playing golf, VanderLinden said golf is a lifetime sport. “It’s the experience on the golf course,” VanderLinden said. “We are teaching them etiquette and ways to act on the course, so they are getting a little more than just smacking golf balls. You can definitely tell a difference from one year to the next. They gain more confidence by the way they are swinging the clubs and their ball travels further. We want them to hit the ball on a consistent basis and then we start teaching them about distance.”