WOODLAND — At 14 years old, Eden Stubbs hasn’t found a sport she didn’t like.
Her various athletic endeavors might as well stretch as long as the alphabet.
But one wish Stubbs, a Woodland Middle School eighth grader, still has playing organized golf for the first time is she wished she turned out a year ago.
The interaction camaraderie on the course and quickly learning the game are just some of the perks Stubbs enjoys as a member of Woodland’s golf team.
“I’m glad I came out,” she said.
Her words are music to Woodland golf head coach Aaron Blackwelder’s ears. Woodland High School is Southwest Washington’s only golf program to offer the sport to middle school students — boys in the fall, girls in the spring — who practice and play alongside their high school teammates.
What began as a brainstorming session with coaches and school administrators on how to get the high school golf programs more competitive is now a full-fledge boys and girls feeder program.
According to Woodland officials, middle school golf in the district began under Blackwelder in 2010 (boys) and the late Don Wendt in 2011 (girls).
Blackwelder believes by exposing golf at an earlier age, athletes are more experienced in the game by the time they reach high school. That’s a step Blackwelder felt Woodland needed to take to build a consistently strong program.
“I saw kids coming into high school who didn’t have any experience or exposure,” he said. “I wanted kids to come in and have more; come out as a freshman and be able to manage nine holes of golf.”
So far, those extra development years have made a competitive difference plus a boost in turnout. This spring’s program has a combined 21 high school and middle school golfers. The six middle school golfers — three seventh graders and three eighth graders — are all in their first year of competitive golf.
One of the season highlights for seventh grader Monica Martinez is her 150-yard tee shot in their second match.
“That’s the longest drive I’ve gone,” she said.
Martinez almost knows every hole at Lewis River Golf Course in and out. At age 6 she first tagged along with her uncle on what she calls her home course, learning golf’s short game. He’s also encouraged his niece to play competitive golf this spring.
The encouragement from teammates makes Martinez’s experience more enjoyable. She’s already aiming for state to follow in the footsteps of current Woodland golfers.
“I look up to them,” she said.
Introducing golf at an earlier age not only builds for the high school team’s future, but Blackwelder also sees it as a way to attract a younger audience for golf’s future.
A recent National Golf Federation report shows golf is stuck in the rough as participation dwindles and courses close nationwide.
In Clark County, Green Mountain Golf Course closed in February 2016 after developers acquired the land to turn it into a 283-acre mixed commercial-residential area. This spring, a number of area high school girls teams haven’t fielded the minimum number of golfers to account for a team score. But Blackwelder hopes middle school golf spreads in Southwest Washington, and in turn, creates a league.
It’s already gaining traction in La Center, where they’re considering adding golf as a middle school sport, athletic director Matt Cooke said. In past years, schools in Longview have offered middle school golf.
Woodland first offered middle school golf for boys eight years ago, and spring boarded to the girls in 2014. While turnouts fluctuate depending on interest, the six middle school girls is an all-time high. The boys had eight in the fall.
Lucy Sams, another seventh grader, is the latest in her family to pick up golf.
“I always liked driving the cart,” she said, “than go golfing.”
Her parents are Longview Country Club members, but not until recently did Sams figure she’d give the game a go since her entire family, including younger brother, plays.
Her clubs are a mixed bag of borrowed from family and friends.
And her shoes?
“They’re my mom’s,” she said.
The young teens play in select high school matches, teeing off in groupings behind their high school counterparts. Their scores don’t count toward Woodland’s team total.
Sams, for one, has picked up golf quickly. She shot a 60 for nine holes at Lewis River at a recent match.
Scores like those impress senior Vanessa Franke, a two-time state qualifier. Franke was part of the trio of eighth graders in 2014, and as a leader in the program, continues to be impressed by the young teens’ growth in golf etiquette and course management. She recently looked over their scorecards after a match, and her eighth-grade scores weren’t as close to what she’s seeing.
“They’ve picked up the game so fast, and are getting better all the time,” Franke said. “They come and want to get better, and want to have a lot of fun.
“It brings back that fun aspect to the game.”
That’s Blackwelder’s ultimate goal for the middle schoolers: have fun. The coach mixes all 21 golfers daily to promote teamwork, camaraderie, and leadership and teaching opportunities for the upperclassmen. At a recent Friday practice, the team played Horse Race, a game meant to eliminate competitors using the fewest strokes at each hole.
Growing her golf game in a fun atmosphere is one of the best parts about Sams’ inaugural competitive season. She’s already planning to return next year and beyond.
“Every day,” she said, “you get a little better and you learn something. … I want to keep going and play all the way through high school.”
Editor’s Note: A reporting error led to incorrect dates and names listed in this story on the origional publish date, Monday, May 7, 2018. Correct information was added Thursday, May 10, 2018.