Jekyll Island hosted this weekend hundreds of aspiring young athletes during golf and tennis tournaments that attracted players and families from across the United States and the world.
The Indian Mound and Pine Lakes golf courses on the island were filled with golfers ranging in age from 5 to 14 invited to play in the annual Jekyll Island Cup hosted by U.S. Kids Golf.
Jekyll Island was the original host for the inaugural U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in 2000, and the island has hosted the U.S. Kids Golf Foundation Regional Championship since 2004.
More than 300 youth players from 28 states and nine countries, including Brazil, Canada, Chile, Costa Rica, Spain, Japan, Puerto Rico and Uruguay, participated in the two-day tournament this weekend.
The waiting list this year grew more than 500 players, which is the largest in the tournament’s history, said Corey Floyd, senior manager of championships for U.S. Kids Golf.
“Obviously they come from all over,” he said. “They qualify on a local level or through other U.S. Kids events. It’s a big deal for these kids.”
Thirty volunteers were on hand to support the event, along with a staff that included local tour directors from around the Southeast.
“It’s a big event for a lot of kids,” Floyd said. “It started out with a lot of kids really just from the Southeast, and it’s turned from a regional event into more of an international event. We’re here every March, and we’ve been doing it for a long time.”
Many of the players and their families stay on Jekyll a full week to enjoy the island’s amenities along with the tournament, he said.
Players with the highest level of status receive the first invitations to play, and the tournament typically sells out within the first month.
“The kids that are playing here are kind of in the top level of our program,” Floyd said.
For some of the younger players, this event may be their first experience with a multi-day tournament. Older ones have a chance to play against some of the best competition they’ll face all year.
“There’s a good concentration of talent just in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and North Carolina,” Floyd said.
And this will be the largest tournament some players ever participate in, he said.
“Some of them don’t go on to play golf after 13, 14, but the goal is for them to play for life,” he said.
Numerous big names in golf have also passed through this tournament, including Lexi Thompson, Lee McCoy, Robby Shelton, Mariah Stackhouse, Cindy Feng, Ashian Ramsey, Colin Morikawa, Andy Ogletree, Smylie Kaufman, Chase Koepka, Grayson Murray and Hank Lebioda.
“It’s been such a great relationship with U.S. Kids bringing people onto the island and sharing what makes Jekyll special,” said Spencer Brookman, PGA director of golf on Jekyll. “… We get to share Jekyll through the tournament.”
Next year will be the tournament’s 20th anniversary on Jekyll, Floyd said.
“It’s almost the birthplace of U.S. Kids tournaments, to be honest with you,” he said.
The pandemic has led to a boom in golf play everywhere, and this year’s tournament and the long waiting list offered further proof of the sport’s growing popularity.
Oglethorpe University also hosted the Jekyll Island Collegiate Invitational March 18-20, and the event included 30 nationally-ranked men’s teams, 24 nationally-ranked women’s teams and 74 individual tournament players. Tennis has also seen the rise in interest afforded to many outdoor activities since the pandemic began.
And across the parking lot this weekend, at the Jekyll Island Tennis Center, nearly 60 youth tennis players competed in the center’s Junior Clay Court Championship, a USTA Georgia junior intermediate-level tournament. Many of the players traveled from other parts of Southeast Georgia and Northeast Florida to play in the two-day event, although some traveled from as far as Maryland.
The tournament offers the players, most of whom are in high school, a different kind of competitive environment than they’re accustomed to, said Stewart Atkins, director of tennis on Jekyll.
“They’re pretty much on their own,” he said. “There’s no team atmosphere like there is in high school or middle school tennis, so it’s just a completely different atmosphere.”
Among the players out on the courts was Cam Lewis, a senior from Jeff Davis County who’s been playing with the Varsity Elite junior program at the tennis center for about four years. He signed recently to be a member of the first collegiate tennis team at Truett McConnell University in Cleveland, Ga.
The Varsity Elite players travel to Jekyll most Saturdays during the school year and for several days a week over the summer to play.
“He comes to us from two hours a way,” Atkins said. “Every time he comes, it’s two hours here and two hours back. And he started with us. He’s been with Varsity Elite since it’s beginning.”
Lewis said his experiences playing on Jekyll have shaped him mentally for the opportunities he’ll have in college.
“I love to play here,” he said.