By Justin Golba, USGA, P.J. Boatwright Intern
AKRON, OHIO – On Wednesday, the Northern Ohio PGA, Firestone Country Club and the PGA Champions Tour conducted the Inaugural Firestone Junior Cup. Thanks to the event, 80 junior golfers made a memory they will never forget.
The Turn was able to send two teams into the inaugural event and were led by coaches Trevor Hazen, the Turn’s Program Director and Erin Craig, Assistant Golf Professional at North Olmsted Golf Club.
The Turn is the nonprofit arm of the Northern Ohio Golf Association founded with the mission to inspire hope and enhance the health and well-being of people with physical disabilities through the game of golf.
“The event was phenomenal, very appreciative of Northern Ohio PGA and Firestone Country Club and the Champions Tour for putting that on,” Hazen said. “Anytime you can be involved in an inaugural anything is pretty cool and I think the kids will understand that now and when they get older as they start seeing other kids participate in the cup at Firestone.
“The biggest takeaways were all the kids on both The Turn teams I think were exposed to a side of golf and a world of golf that they have never seen before and never knew existed,” Hazen added.
10 teams from different golf clubs and country clubs in the area participated, making a great turnout for the first time event.
“It’s great,” Northern Ohio PGA Executive Director David Griffith said about the event. “It’s an honor to be here at Firestone (Country Club) and during the Bridgestone Senior Player’s Championship.
NOGA was honored to be a part of the event, along with The Turn.
“The relationship that NOGA has with the NOPGA is as solid as a relationship can be,” NOGA CEO Robb Schulze said. “David (Griffith) and I have so much mutual respect for each other and work so well together and it benefits both organizations in so many ways.”
For the Turn and the Northern Ohio Golf Association, it was about more than just golf on the course on Wednesday. It was about showing that golf is a sport for everyone.
13-year old Vinny Mercurio has been playing with the Turn and his younger brother Tony, 11, for some time now. Vinny was out there with nine other junior golfers from The Turn, playing the beautiful Firestone Country Club.
Mercurio uses a paramobile when he golfs after he suffered a stroke due to a blood clot near his brain stem. For Vinny, golf has been a way to not only compete in sports with his brother again, but also a way to scratch the competitive itch that he has had his entire life.
“It is so great because before Vinny’s stroke they played baseball together and that was something we were able to go and enjoy,” Vinny’s mother Betty Mercurio said. “After the stroke, we didn’t have sports on our mind at all as even an opportunity so when our (physical therapist) said this program was available, we were so excited to give Vinny the opportunity to play sports again.”
Betty Mercurio added “Just to be able to see them out there and play a sport together again, it means so much to us.”
Hazen and Craig have been crucial to Vinny and helping him adapt to his circumstances.
“They are just an incredible group,” Mercurio said. “Coach Erin, getting this group up and going for the PGA Junior team and bringing the kids along, they are just positive role models. The program has been so organized and it is a great opportunity to integrate the kids together. We are so thankful for what they have done and built.”
For Hazen and others that have been with The Turn since the beginning, yesterday was a day to celebrate how far the program has come and a reminder of the vision of founder Bob Wharton, whose name is on the clubhouse that houses NOGA and The Turn.
“Certainly, thought about Bob a lot yesterday,” Hazen said. “It was definitely a moment of reflection. Sometimes with all of the different activities going on you don’t have time to reflect and yesterday, standing on the ninth tee overlooking that beautiful view and really thinking about how far The Turn program has come since its inception.
“I have been fortunate enough to be here from the beginning and it was truly one of our proudest moments and I know Bob was certainly proud of that,” Hazen said.
For Hazen and Craig, it was a day to remember, but also to build upon and look towards the future of The Turn.
“Looking at all of the other teams, there were a lot of country clubs there and our team was one that, being from a public course, our kids don’t have the opportunity to play country clubs on an everyday basis,” Craig said. “I think it was a once and a lifetime opportunity and just to see their faces as they were walking up.
Hazen added “It proves that golf is a game for everyone.”
For The Turn’s Junior League, Vinny is not the only kid that their resources are helping. Huston is visually impaired and Dane is a brain tumor survivor.
“I get chills thinking about it, but I started Junior League because of Vinny, Huston, Dane, seeing those kids, they were my inspiration for starting Junior League here,” Craig said.
It helps when all of the other kids just want to help. In any way that they can.
“The kids are awesome,” Craig added. “They want to be Huston’s helper or tee the ball up for Vinny. Vinny always says that he just wants to be normal and I think this is a way they can feel completely normal.”
Griffith was adamant about giving people with physical disabilities the opportunity to play golf.
“It is a game for a lifetime at any level and obviously for anyone that may be physically challenged too. Hopefully they have a memory for the rest of their lives,” Griffith added.