The Newton, N.J. club has been the home course for two high schools’ golf teams in its area, but after the pandemic shut down this year’s spring season, it opened its course so players from nine area schools could play at no charge throughout July and August.
When shutdowns swept across the nation earlier this year to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the spring sports seasons of high-school athletes were lost to the pandemic as well. That prompted the private Newton (N.J.) Country Club to spring into action and open its gates, to allow the most recent juniors and seniors on the boys’ and girls’ golf teams at nine area high schools in Sussex County to play its 18-hole course for free in July and August.
The idea was the brainchild of Jeff Bonham, former Newton CC President and a member of the club’s Board of Trustees, and Mike Briegel, the current Board President.
“The entire spring sports season in all of New Jersey got wiped out this year,” says Bonham, who played golf and baseball when he was in high school. “It’s a great idea for any local club to do for local schools. We are in an area where there’s a group of nine high-school golf teams that play against each other.”
After all, high-school and junior golf are staples at Newton CC. The property serves as the home course for the golf teams of the public Newton High School, as well as an area parochial school, Pope John XXIII Regional High School. The club was also the site of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s North 1 and 2, Group 1 tournament in 2019, and it was set to hold the tournament again this spring before the season was canceled.
And for more than 10 years, Newton CC has been the host of the New Jersey PGA Junior Masters, an annual two-day event that is held each August. In addition, Jimmy Apostolico, a club member and part of its junior program that serves about 35 young golfers, won the state boys’ championship several years ago.
Bonham brought up the proposal to allow the students to play at Newton CC’s Board meeting, and it was approved easily. First, however, he ran the idea by the golf coaches at Newton High and Pope John XXIII.
“They thought it was fantastic,” he says. “They thought it was best for juniors and seniors, because they have their own transportation and they know golf etiquette.”
After the initial reaction from the Newton and Pope John XXIII coaches, the property decided to extend the opportunity to all of the high-school golf teams in the county.
“Each coach got very excited about it,” Bonham says. “Our membership is very excited about it, too. There’s never enough young people on the golf course for any of us.”
The high-school golfers are being allowed to play at the club seven days a week, but their hours are restricted to the afternoons. “Most of our members play in the morning,” says Bonham. “The average age of our members is 55, but we remember what it’s like playing until sunset in the afternoons. There’s nothing like it.”
The young golfers can walk when they play and carry or pull their own bags, just as they do in high-school tournaments. They need to check in at the pro shop before they go out on the course, and the coaches from each of the schools submitted a roster of eligible players to the property.
“The last rule is we want them to enjoy themselves,” says Bonham.
Newton’s PGA Professional Robin Kohberger, who has worked at the property for 35 years, will see to that.
“We’ll probably run a few tournaments,” he says. “Otherwise, they just need to show up and let me know they’re here.”
Kohberger knows the high-school golfers are not just athletes. They’re also competitors, and with the tournaments, the free-golf initiative will tap into that aspect of the game that they missed with their lost seasons.
“It’s terrible the way the virus took away high-school sports and graduations in our area,” Bonham says. “There’s no way for other sports like baseball or lacrosse to get back their seasons, but a golf course can do something about it, by offering their course for high-school students to play.”
He also thought it was important to open up the golf course to them at no charge.
“When high-school players play on their golf teams in the spring, they don’t pay,” says Bonham. “This is a good way for clubs to give back to their communities.”