For many years, twins Alexandra and Andrea Wong scrambled for practice space at the multi-deck San Bruno driving range and starting times at the municipal Lincoln Park Golf Course in San Francisco.
Because they were too young to drive, their father shuttled them to the course, then waited while they practiced or played.
Everything changed four years ago.
Irving Chang, the father of one of their teammates at St. Ignatius College Prep, is a former president of Lake Merced Golf Club, one of the finest private facilities in Northern California. Chang thought the talented twins – who were high school freshmen at the time – would be a perfect fit for Lake Merced’s Junior Merit program.
The program had been created five years earlier as a unique membership for promising junior players who couldn’t afford to join. Upon Chang’s recommendation to Lake Merced head professional and program supervisor Dan Burke, the Wong sisters were accepted.
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As Junior Merit members they would have full access to the golf course and practice facilities at Lake Merced, site of the 1990 U.S. Junior Amateur and this summer’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship (July 16-21). The days of purchasing range balls and calling for a starting time were in the rear-view mirror.
With few exceptions, they could come and go as they pleased.
"It’s so nice," said Alex Wong, winner of the 2012 San Francisco City Women’s Championship, who will enroll at Princeton University this fall. "It’s a pretty quiet club. At 4 or 5 o’clock [in the afternoon] there’s hardly anyone on the course, so you can go out and hit different shots.
"[The Junior Merit program] is a money-saver. It’s expensive to play golf. We have so much freedom here."
What separates Lake Merced’s program from others is the fact that there are no monthly dues. Each member gets an account for purchases in the pro shop or grill room. Parents can drop off Junior Merit members, but can’t stay to watch.
As long as Junior Merit members meet the club’s standards in terms of etiquette, they can stay in the program through college, provided they are still competing.
Domingo Jojola, 25, was one of the original Junior Merit members, having been accepted in 2002. Jojola moved from New Mexico to California in eighth grade, and he turned to golf because it allowed him the freedom to play and practice on his own. His game slowly evolved, and a Lake Merced member invited Jojola to participate on the club’s team in the Bay Cities League, which pits players from the private clubs in the Bay Area.
In fact, it was the dearth of quality junior golfers among the regular Lake Merced membership for the Bay Cities League team that led Burke to suggest starting the Junior Merit program.
"It was unbelievable," said Jojola of having full access to Lake Merced’s facilities. "I had never seen a more beautiful course in my whole life. The atmosphere and the people I met there were pretty special."
Jojola, who advanced to the sectional stage of U.S. Open qualifying earlier this month, continued with the program through his days at the University of San Francisco. Now he’s part of Lake Merced’s group of touring professionals who are allowed club access. He turned pro last summer, but failed to advance beyond the first stage of PGA Tour Qualifying School. He’s hoping that with another year of mini-tour seasoning, he will reach that ultimate goal this fall.
Burke emphasized that the program is not designed to churn out professional golfers.
"We devised the program with three things in mind," said Burke, who has been at Lake Merced for 15 years. "We wanted to find good athletes. That wasn’t the No. 1 criteria. We [also] wanted to find good students. And most importantly, we wanted to find kids where there was economic need. We wanted kids whose socioeconomic status didn’t allow them such access to a private club. That’s the mantra of the program."
Lake Merced prides itself on being one of the most diverse clubs in the Bay Area. The Junior Merit program is an extension of that philosophy.
Once accepted, Junior Merits must fulfill three core requirements:
- Play in a minimum of three Bay Cities League matches – there are six per summer.
- Assist with local clinics in conjunction with organizations such as the YMCA.
- Help professional staff for club events such as its annual invitational.
Junior Merit members are also encouraged to get to know the members, which helps build long-term relationships on and off the golf course. Call it a mentoring program that benefits both parties. Talk with any Junior Merit member and one quickly sees how articulate and mature these young people are.
"The most gratifying thing to me as a professional … is to see the relationships built with our members," said Burke. "The interaction that they have; it’s not just important for them now in their youth, but even more importantly as they go into their life and business. Whatever they choose [as a career], those things will have a profound effect on their life."
A Home Away From Home
On a rainy March day, the Wong sisters, along with fellow St. Ignatius Prep golfer Nicolas Noya, are spending time in the Lake Merced pro shop. The weather’s too lousy to play, so they check out the merchandise and chat with staff members, including Burke. The three blend in as if they’ve been members for decades.
Even on a miserable day for playing golf, they socialize quietly and say hello to regular members who come for lunch.
"Honestly, we chill out here, too," said the 17-year-old Andrea Wong, who will be joining Noya next fall at UC Davis, where the two will compete on their respective golf teams. "It’s fun."
The three can be serious as well. They are excellent students as well as talented golfers. But they love being at Lake Merced. The Wong sisters said they spend an average of 14 hours a week at the club practicing and playing. Noya, 18, makes frequent visits from his home in South San Francisco.
It’s a bit more challenging for Carly Childs, who lives in Alameda, across San Francisco Bay, and can’t frequent the club as much during the school year. Childs got into the program four years ago through her older sister, Emily, who went on to earn a golf scholarship to the University of Colorado, but transferred to Cal after her freshman season. The four-time U.S. Girls’ Junior participant has won four college tournaments for the Golden Bears and plans to turn pro this fall.
During the summer months, Carly and Emily are fixtures at Lake Merced. Carly, 17, one of the top juniors in California who is headed to Cal-Berkeley in the fall, said she doubts her game would have risen to its current level without the membership.
"All courses look so much easier after playing here," said Carly, who played Alameda’s public course before being accepted as a Junior Merit member. "The fairways are so tight and the greens so fast. You learn how to hit different shots off different lies.
"It’s such a privilege. It’s so nice. I couldn’t be happier."
Noya came to Lake Merced after being a junior member at Green Hills Country Club in Millbrae, where his family was paying $130 a month for the privilege.
"It wasn’t really working out," said Noya.
His father’s former boss, Mel Anuzi, was a Lake Merced member and he contacted Burke on Noya’s behalf. At first Noya only played with the club’s Bay Cities League team and was later accepted as a Junior Merit member.
"If you can break par at Lake Merced, you can break par anywhere," said Noya, who was an alternate for the 2011 U.S. Junior Amateur.
Noya and the Wong sisters also share Lake Merced’s philosophy about giving back. All three volunteer with The First Tee at Visitacion Valley, a San Francisco middle school located in one of the most impoverished areas of the city. Most participants have had virtually no exposure to golf. Recently a golf facility was constructed on the grounds to give participants a chance to see how the game can impact their lives.
During the early rounds of the San Francisco City Championship at Lincoln Park, Noya said one of the Visitacion Valley youngsters recognized him and said hello, even though Noya hadn’t seen the child in six months.
"It gives us an opportunity to make an impact on their lives," said Noya, and to keep them out of trouble. "They don’t have a lot of parental support. We want to give them the life-skills to succeed."
Added Andrea Wong: "The kids are amazing. It really opens up your perspective, too. Even though these kids are so different from you, they really are the same – they want to live life and have fun."
Recently, Lake Merced’s Junior Merit program forged a partnership with The First Tee of San Francisco in hopes of identifying potential candidates. While the Wong sisters participated in The First Tee, they weren’t invited out of that program.
However, 13-year-old Samantha Gong could soon be the shining example for this new relationship.
Gong came to The First Tee as a shy 7-year-old and now, according to Judith Powell, the director of The First Tee of San Francisco, she has the potential to be a star. Gong first came to Lake Merced as a Bay Cities League participant through Stephen Yee, a client of her father Calvin, who is a chiropractor.
Gong met one of the coaches, David Poon, which eventually led to her Junior Merit candidacy.
"I’ve seen a lot of really, really good young girl players, and I played as a junior and in college [at Vanderbilt] and her ball flight is almost like Greg Norman’s," said Powell, who was Gong’s instructor until she recently began working with Dede Braun-Moriarty. "It’s like they are shot out of a cannon. I’ve never seen a girl with that kind of ball flight. She’s just unbelievably long with her irons. She can hit an 8-iron 165 yards."
The eighth-grader, who also plays basketball, volleyball, softball and track, is highly appreciative of Lake Merced.
"I feel lucky for myself," said Gong. "I know a lot of other players don’t have the opportunity to play at private courses."
The Lake Merced membership gives Gong, who volunteered at the 2012 U.S. Open as a standard bearer, a chance to work on her game without the distractions she normally faces at Harding Park. Gong is also meeting more members and gaining a comfort level at the club.
Like the Wong sisters, who don’t turn 18 until August, Gong was hoping to qualify for the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior. However, all three failed to advance out of sectional qualifying.
Outside of the U.S. Kids Championship in Pinehurst, N.C., Gong has yet to play competitively on a national level. This summer, her competition schedule is expected to be ramped up and Calvin Gong said Samantha might even look to play in some American Junior Golf Association events.
The Wong sisters, four years older, are on a different level. Alex won an AJGA event in Aspen, Colo., last summer and Andrea finished third in another AJGA competition in Rochester, N.Y.
The Future And Beyond
Burke said there are currently 14 Junior Merit members, ranging in age from 13 (Gong and Alex Rojas) to 22 (Emily Childs). In order to keep the program manageable, Burke said, the club has membership limitations.
All potential Junior Merit members must go through an extensive application process, including an interview with Burke. In some cases, a member of the professional staff or a club member will play golf with the candidate.
It is hoped that The First Tee partnership will open the door for future candidates, though until now, the majority of potential members have come via word of mouth.
No one doubts the program’s success. According to Burke, every Junior Merit member has enrolled in college, and a sizable number have played golf for a four-year institution.
Still, Burke emphasized that the program wasn’t created to churn out the next Lorena Ochoa or Yani Tseng. In fact, Alex Wong isn’t sure she wants to play professionally. Several major Division I schools recruited her, yet she chose Princeton for its world-renowned Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. She perked up when she heard that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to be the guest speaker at the U.S. Girls’ Junior players’ dinner.
Powell thinks Alex will serve in public office someday.
"She’s a woman with a purpose," added Powell.
If nothing else, the Junior Merit membership has given the participants a head start in life. And who knows, someday they might return as full-time Lake Merced members.
"The program has been a home run," said Burke. "It’s just a win-win situation. To be able to give these kids that opportunity is what our club is all about."
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.