A STORY IN WEDNESDAY'S SPORTS SECTION INCORRECTLY STATED THE FINISH OF HAYFIELD'S CRAIG MASON IN THE VIRGINIA AAA NORTHERN REGION GOLF CHAMPIONSHIP. HE FINISHED FOURTH. (PUBLISHED 09/07/99)

When high school golf tryouts began in mid-August, coaches in the metropolitan area found more players on the first tee trying to make teams. In the past, Fairfax High Coach Milt Papke had from 11 to 15 student-athletes try out each year. This season, 30 signed up. At Wootton High in Rockville, Coach Jack Weiland said he had 40 players compete for one of the 12 spots on his squad.

They attribute the growing interest in golf throughout the area to Tiger Woods, who began playing professionally in the summer of 1996. His stardom was established in 1997 after he shot a record-breaking 18 under par to win The Masters. Woods's performances and charisma have attracted a fresh, young generation to the game.

"I think the rise is especially among minority golfers, which is great," said Wootton's Ryan Tendall, a senior who averaged 76 last season. "Golf is unique. You need to be an athlete to play it, and Tiger definitely fits that description."

Sergio Garcia of Spain also fits that description. The emergence of the 19-year-old, who finished second to Woods at the PGA Championship in early August, likely will bolster the rising interest.

"Golf itself has marketed its young players--[Justin] Leonard, [David] Duval and certainly Tiger--so well," Marshall Coach Robyn Lady said. "Kids are not seeing it as a bunch of old guys playing golf, what they are seeing now are athletes."

And they want to be like them. But Rodney Lathern, a golf professional in Maryland, said youngsters face some obstacles.

"Accessibility is the number one issue when it comes to young people being able to play golf," he said. "A lot of the interest has to do with money. Almost all communities have basketball courts, but not every community has golf courses that are accessible to everybody."

Despite the game's increased popularity, price and accessibility have contained the growth of the sport at the high school level, barring from competition many student-athletes who want to play the game.

"If your parents live at a country club then you can go out and play," said Ken Mesa, an organizer of the annual Quantico High School Golf Invitational. "If you had more public courses that didn't cost a lot of money to play there would be more interest. It's just a very expensive sport, and it depends on how deep your parents' pockets are."

Many area coaches believe players who grow up playing at country clubs have a distinct advantage over those who play exclusively on public courses, which golfers first have to find, before waiting for a tee time. Coaches also said most public courses are not as difficult as country club courses, which force players to concentrate on their techniques and help them become better players.

These players often have the advantage of using the finest equipment, which some high school coaches are surprised to see in players' bags. Lady said players with access to private courses, just like those with better equipment, have the upper hand.

"I think equipment certainly has something to do with the game," she said. "I think if you are using your dad's old nicked-up woods with the wood head, you're at a disadvantage. Kids today know about the clubs more than I even care to know sometimes."

Said Papke: "It's amazing, these kids all seem to have the newest stuff. A kid could easily have $1,500 worth of clubs in his bag. Throw in shoes, balls, shirts, hats, gloves . . ."

Local and national programs have been established to help defray some of the costs. Two years ago, Lathern received a $100,000 grant from the United States Golf Association (USGA) to build a youth training center with the idea of introducing golf to teens who never had been exposed to the game.

In March, with the help of the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Lathern opened the Prince George's County Youth Golf Training Center in Landover. The facility includes a miniature par-3 course with artificial tees and greens, a driving range and a 7,000 square-foot artificial putting green.

Lathern said his program helps young people get involved in junior golf and raises money to pay their entry fees for summer tournaments, where golfers can sharpen their skills against good competition.

Local tournaments such as the Frank Emmet Schoolboy tournament in Laytonsville, the Dewey Ricketts Memorial Junior Cup in Rockville and the Bobby Bowers Memorial in Springfield, help bring juniors to the sport and keep them interested throughout their high school years. The American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) and the Middle Atlantic Professional Golf Association (MAPGA) sponsor a variety of tournaments during the summer that offer stiff competition around the region and across the country. But several of these events have entry fees many athletes can't afford.

"I have two kids who play in summer tournaments that are in a family that has 10 kids," Lathern said. "So, for [their] family, paying some money for the kid to play a golf tournament just isn't a priority. There are phone bills and stuff like that that come first--playing in a golf tournament would be an extra."

Facilities like Lathern's and programs like The First Tee, a national initiative that focuses on introducing youngsters to golf, have helped reach athletes who otherwise would not have access to the sport.

Lady, who was involved in a summer golf program for inner-city kids at East Potomac Golf Course at Haines Point, believes if the game was less expensive more young people would play.

"They got into it. It's just a matter of getting the opportunity to play the game and learn it," she said. "They just have to have access to it. [The kids] say golf looks interesting, but they don't play. It really is a matter of access."

TOP AREA GOLFERS

Charles Hong

Whitman, Senior

Returning All-Met Golfer of the Year. Finished second in the Maryland state tournament last season.

How he got interested:

"Both of my parents played, and on weekends I followed my father to the driving range. Then when I was 7 I took the game up."

Favorite piece of equipment:

Putter. "The last couple years I haven't putted as well as I'd liked. So I got a new putter and it works and I love it."

JohnScott Rattan

Watkins Mill, Senior

Returning All-Met. Finished third in Maryland state tournament last season.

How he got interested:

"I got interested watching my dad play."

Favorite piece of equipment:

Putter. "It seemed like every month I'd use a new, or different putter, but I've been with the same one for around five months now."

Matt Johnson

Fairfax, Senior

Returning All-Met. Finished tied for second in the Virginia AAA Northern Region tournament last season.

How he got interested:

"I started when I was 9. I got sick of watching my grandfather and my father, so I started to play. My grandfather gave me my first set of clubs."

Favorite piece of equipment:

Lucky golf shirt. "Two years ago the team got shirts for the first time for the Quantico Classic and we won the tournament."

Ryan Tendall

Wootton, Senior

Finished fifth in the Maryland state tournament last year. Scoring average is 76.

How he got interested:

"My dad was a golf professional at Manor Country Club so I hung around the golf course a lot. I started playing the game when I was 7."

Favorite piece of equipment:

Putter. "Once you play for a while the putter differs more than any other club."

Craig Mason

Hayfield, Senior

Tied for 10th at Virginia AAA Northern Region tournament last year.

How he got interested:

"My dad introduced me to the game when I was about 8. I played other sports, but I just took to golf."

Favorite piece of equipment:

Lucky shirt. "I played well once with it on and now I wear it for all the tournaments."

Ben Hogan

Centreville, Sophomore

Finished in the top 10 in the Virginia state tournament last week.

How he got interested:

"My dad got me started. I was named half because of my father and half because of the golfer Ben Hogan."

Favorite piece of equipment:

Lob wedge. "It's a Hogan wedge, and I love it. I think it's a good luck club."

Billy Hurley

Loudoun County, Senior

Returning honorable mention All-Met. Finished second at J.V. Arthur tournament earlier this summer. Virginia Northwest District individual champion last season.

How he got interested:

"My dad was an assistant professional at Reston South, Hidden Creek Country Club, in the late '70s. I've been riding in the cart ever since I can remember."

Favorite piece of equipment:

Putter. "I just got a new one and it worked. I've only had it for two weeks."

Chris Gentile

Hylton, Junior

Won last year's Virginia AAA Northwestern Region championship by five shots.

How he got interested:

"My dad played, and I watched him then started playing myself when I was 10."

Favorite piece of equipment:

Driver. "It's titanium and I can hit it longer, and it's more forgiving."

Jairo Irreno

Churchill, Junior

No. 1 player on Churchill's state championship team. Runner-up at the national junior olympic title this summer.

How he got interested:

"My dad took up the game when we came from Colombia when I was 3."

Favorite piece of equipment:

Driver. "I like the driver because you can hit it anywhere on the face and it will go very far."

Jenny Suh

Chantilly, Freshman

Won this summer's Bobby Bowers Classic. Qualified for junior nationals.

How she got interested:

"My father taught me the game when I was 7."

Favorite piece of equipment:

Golf bag. "It's light and it makes it easy to carry my clubs around."

Who plays when?

All Virginia schools play scholastic golf in the fall as do all Maryland schools in the region with the exception of Prince George's County schools, which play in the spring.