'21 jr champ Nomm handshakes

Kaeden Nomm (right) exchanges handshakes with his playing partners after winning the 2021 WSGA Junior Boys Championship. At left is Maxamillian Xiong and with his back to camera is Trent Meyer.

At risk of sounding like a cranky old man barking at you to stay off my fairway, let me begin by saying junior golf looks nothing like it did when I was flailing away with my Ram starter set.

It’s not necessarily better or worse than it was (cough-cough) 40 years ago. But it is different. Very different.

For that matter, junior golf opportunities are far more abundant now than they were even 10 years ago when the oldest of my four former junior golfers teed it up in her first Wisconsin PGA Junior Tour events. There were fewer than 70 junior golf events on the WPGA calendar in 2011 and that’s counting two American Junior Golf Association events listed to beef up the schedule.

Ten years ago, there were three multiple-day, in-state events on the WPGA calendar for boys and girls — the WPGA Junior Championship at Yahara Hills Golf Course in Madison, a WPGA Players Tour event at the Golf Courses of Lawsonia in Green Lake and the Lake Arrowhead Invitational near Nekoosa. Girls had a fourth in the WWSGA State Girls Match-Play (held in conjunction with the women’s version of the event) while boys had two more multi-day options — the WSGA Junior Boys Championship and the Wisconsin Junior Masters in Racine — but none were on the WPGA junior calendar because governing bodies kept to themselves back then.

These days, those groups work together to make sure schedule conflicts are kept to a minimum and junior golfers can register for most events open to them in Wisconsin through the WPGA Junior website. This year, there were nearly 130 junior golf events on the WPGA calendar — including 12 multiple-day events, two of them new — and that number continues to grow.

This history lesson in the evolution of junior golf in Wisconsin is relevant at this time of year especially for those of us whose task it is to rank the state’s junior golfers. Over the next three weeks, Wisconsin.Golf will roll out its annual class-by-class rankings following a rigorous, three-week examination of 2021 results in which more than 700 boys and girls were considered for 130 spots at the head of their class – 50 for the Class of 2022, 40 for the Class of 2023, 25 for the Class of 2024 and 15 for the Class of 2025 for each gender – using metrics balancing rigor, performance and consistency that was explained in depth in this space a year ago

If each junior golfer competed in, say, 10 WPGA Junior points events — a solid estimate based on the resumes that were analyzed — that means about 7,000 results contributed to this year’s evaluation process. Each additional tournament not only creates another opportunity for junior golfers across the state, but provides another measure for head-to-head meetings of golfers in the same class, which weighs heavily in our rankings and in the college recruiting process.

What complicates the process are the many trends that show junior golf, like other youth sports, is ever-changing and the way young golfers strive to get better continues to evolve. Therefore, the method by which we compare, contrast and evaluate Wisconsin's best high school golfers must change, too. 

Here are a few trends unearthed during the process of compiling our annual rankings that certainly gave us pause: 

Classrooms look a lot different: When we last ranked Wisconsin’s junior golfers, Jessica Guiser was coming off a sensational freshman season at Hartland Arrowhead, winning the  WIAA Division 1 state championship. A month or so after our rankings were published, she joined the growing ranks of Wisconsin golfers who are spending the school year in warmer climates, joining friend Treva Dodd of Brookfield at IMG Academy in Florida. 

Likewise, Lake Delton’s Caden Jacobson, who spent his freshman year in 2018-19 at Wisconsin Dells High School, also wound up at IMG after a brief stop in the fall of 2020 at Shattuck St. Mary’s, a 163-year-old boarding school in Faribault, Minn., with a Golf Center of Excellence as the centerpiece of a focused, 10-month competitive golf program. Jacobson joins Muskego’s Tyson Sparks, who receives his home-school education at his family’s second home in Las Vegas, on what, thus far, is a short list of junior golfers who live at home and compete in Wisconsin events during the summer but attend school out-of-state the rest of the year.  

For some, college can’t wait: A year ago, Oconomowoc’s Grace Suter was reassigned from the Class of 2020 to the Class of 2021 after spending a gap year at the Mike Bender Golf Academy in Lake Mary, Fla. She shared the No. 1 ranking with Class of 2021 stalwart Jo Baranczyk of Green Bay and subsequently signed with NCAA Division I Loyola (Ill.).

This year, Brookfield East’s Olivia McSorley – after jumping from No. 21 to No. 16 in our Class of 2022 rankings a year ago – graduated early and began her college golf career at NCAA Division III UW-Eau Claire. While her former high school teammates led the Spartans to the program’s first WIAA state tournament berth since 2012, McSorley showed great promise at Eau Claire, finishing sixth on the team in scoring and T-41 (of 69) at the WIAC Championship.

Injuries, illnesses take toll: A year ago, a shoulder injury stalled the progress of Milwaukee Marquette’s Hayden LeMonds – a rising star in the Class of 2022 – and forced him to spend much of 2021 trying to regain the form he showed earlier in his high school career.

This year, at least two more junior golfers have joined the list in the infirmary. Green Bay Notre Dame’s Grace Durkin (back) and Kaukauna’s Alexander Buchoski (Kleine-Levin syndrome) had their normal tournament load curtailed significantly and, while we’ll never know how they would have fared against their peers had they been healthy, their situations have led us to modify their 2020 ranking rather than eliminate them entirely and indicate injury status accordingly. 

They (and their schedules) grow up fast: For all the frequent-flier miles many of Wisconsin’s top junior golfers (and their parents) have racked up chasing national events college coaches are telling them to play, it was refreshing to see so many Wisconsin boys and girls heed my advice in a column earlier this year and test the fruits of that labor closer to home by entering – or attempting to qualify for – the Wisconsin State Amateur, the Wisconsin State Open or other tournaments, championships and qualifiers that promote the idea of becoming comfortable being uncomfortable.

Without naming names, the No. 1-ranked boys and girls golfers in our Classes of 2022 and 2023 competed in both events with the two boys surviving qualifiers to earn the opportunity. There really isn’t a competitive gap or weak link among any demographic of golfer in Wisconsin these days – high school, college, men’s and women’s amateur, club professional, mini-tour professional – and, combined with challenging course set-ups, the events offer quality experiences … and close to home. 

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