You never quite know when a light bulb moment will hit.
The key is knowing when to flip the switch.
For Mike Nass — the former general manager at Cantigny Golf Club in Wheaton — that moment came in the late 1990s while watching the Masters’ Par-3 Tournament.
“Hey,” he thought. “That event is held on about 20 acres. We’ve got 20 just to the south of our course. Why not build a nine-holer there and help develop our junior program?”
So that’s exactly what Nass and Jim Sutherland, the senior vice president of Cantigny Park at the time, set out to do. They got in touch with Andy North and Roger Packard, who designed three of Galena’s most impressive courses, and devised a plan.
Shortly thereafter the Cantigny Youth Links was born. Almost 25 years later it remains a fantastic facility for kids — as well as novice adults — to learn about and enjoy the game of golf. Tucked away not more than a short iron from Cantigny’s magnificent 27-hole facility, the Youth Links features programs for 3-year-olds all the way up to those looking for a competitive edge on their high school team.
The ace of the entire operation is Emily Burns, a York High School grad, who has been the Youth Links’ head pro for 16 years.
Burns has three kids of her own, but her “family” grows exponentially in the summer. You’ll often see her shuttling kids to the main course for practice, conducting classroom sessions in the basement and walking the course with the next generation of Tiger Woods or Annika Sorenstams in tow.
Burns loves seeing the smiles on so many faces and watching kids become more independent and sure of themselves.
“I’m so lucky to have this job,” Burns said. “I just absolutely love it.”
Burns puts plenty of onus on the kids as they are expected to make their own tee times, remember their player card, their clubs (of course!), gloves, shoes, balls — the whole nine yards. So to speak.
Kids younger than 16 can’t just show up and play on their own, however. A two-week certification program (which includes classroom sessions and a written test) is required. The final step is to play the course — and put into practice what they’ve learned — while Burns or another pro plays along to determine if they’re ready.
More than 2,000 kids are certified each year.
“Some of these kids I’ve grown with — and because they started so early — they’re just getting so good so fast,” Burns said. “So by the time they’re (8) we are able to get more in. We don’t have to go over grip and alignment because we’ve already done that.
“So let’s get deeper. We start talking about out of bounds and penalties.”
Classes can have a wide variety of ages because it’s not uncommon for 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds to want to be certified.
After graduating from Level 1 certification one can move up to Levels 2, 3 and 4, then take part in various high school courses. For example, the “Making a Game Plan” clinic teaches students about course management, the pre-shot routine and learning techniques to increase confidence.
A certified player may not bring along a noncertified friend, brother or sister. They must also adhere to the rules of golf and be kind and respectful at all times. That means no foul language, no hitting into groups in front of you and no damage to greens. Kids are expected to repair ball marks and replace divots as well.
As for the course — which is in great shape by the way — most holes are around 100 yards. Only Nos. 3, 4 and 9 have bunkers, No. 9 has the lone water hazard, and No. 4 is a quirky little 65-yarder with out of bounds behind the green.
“Ironically enough it’s the hardest hole for some of the older kids,” Burns said of the fourth. “The green literally sits on the fence and you’ve got almost no room over the green and you’re OB. As an adult that’s a harder shot. But for the kids they’re like, ‘I’m hitting driver!’ ”
Burns isn’t joking: I hit two OB and made a quadruple-bogey 7.
The idea was to make the course relatively simple but also to give kids a taste of everything they’ll find on big-shouldered 18-hole tracks once they’re ready. Nass said they constructed large green complexes with obvious contours so they’d be easy to read.
One unique feature is that the scorecard gives different pars based on ability. For instance, the first three holes are par 6s for Level 1 or 2 kids, while they are par 4, 3, 3 for older kids or adults.
Speaking of adults, they are welcome as well. Just know that you may get behind a wide variety of players, some of whom are just beginning their journey. Still, it’s a great pressure-free environment for novices.
“I only hope more people find out about the course because as a woman myself, it was very intimidating at first (on other courses), Burns said. “It’s much more laid back and great for those just getting into the game.”