BILLINGS — It was a beautiful morning for golf.
The weather was perfect, and players were out competing and sharpening their skills in hopes of both current and future success.
And at 9 a.m. Thursday, play began at the Optimist Zone 4 Qualifier that featured a field of 19 boys and girls ranging in ages from 10 to 17.
Players started to gather at Lake Hills Golf Course at approximately 8 a.m. to begin work on the driving range and practice greens in anticipation of starting the local junior golf season.
While it was the first tournament of the area junior golf season, most of the golfers have been regularly playing for enjoyment or practice rounds. But a tournament setting gets the competitive juices going.
Reese Jensen, 16, will be a junior at Billings Central in the fall. He tied for 15th at the State A tourney and finished all-state last October at the Laurel Golf Club.
“I was waiting for a tournament to come,” he said. “I shot a 76 yesterday at Eaglerock, not bad.”
Jensen said he’s been playing at Hilands regularly and this is the first tourney of the season for him. He plans on playing at other tournaments in Great Falls, Bozeman and Missoula.
“I’m very excited,” he said prior to the tournament. “I’m kind of nervous. I’ll be a junior next year. I feel like expectations are higher for me than last year.”
While Jensen is debating whether to try and golf at the college level, he is looking at possible school choices. He does feel fortunate that during the coronavirus crisis, golf courses in the area were able to adjust safety protocol and stay open.
“Luckily the golf courses haven’t been closed,” Jensen said. “I know my cousins in Washington couldn’t golf. The golf courses were closed for coronavirus.”
Jensen’s younger brother, Colin Jensen, will be a fifth grader in the fall at St. Francis. The 10-year-old won the boys 10-11 division with a score of 87.
Other division winners were: Boys 16-18, Cullen Visser, Manhattan, 76; Boys 14-15, Tye Boone, Billings, 78; Boys 12-13, Logan Connolly, Billings, 84; and Girls 10-14, Kenzie Walsh, Billings, 79.
Zone 4 consists of South-Central Montana and Northern Wyoming. The five winners will have their entry fees paid in the Optimist District tournament July 23 at Lake Hills. Golfers from Montana, Northern Wyoming, Alberta, and Saskatchewan compete at the district level. Whether golfers compete from Canada at the District level will depend on if travel restrictions are in place due to coronavirus. District winners will qualify for the Optimist International tournament in 2021 in Florida.
If a golfer is interested in playing in the July 23 district tourney, they should email firstname.lastname@example.org .
Colin Jensen was pumped up to be able to compete and just missed his targeted score.
“I’m looking to shoot 85 or under,” he said before play began. “I’m really happy to be out here and get out to play a tournament. It will be really fun.”
While it was a junior tournament, the players know the game and talk like old pros when visiting about golf.
“I look forward to it. It looks like it will be a nice day,” said 13-year-old Rebecca Washington, who will be an eighth grader at Will James, before her round began. “It rained last night, so the greens might be a little slow.”
Heidi Grevious was there to cheer on her son, Gage Grevious, and nephew, Isaac Mosser.
Gage Grevious, 15, attends Billings Christian, while Mosser will be a seventh grader at Castle Rock next year.
“This is so exciting. I’m so excited for all these boys,” Heidi Grevious said. “This is Gage’s passion and what he loves. He’s always on the course. We live by Briarwood and he walks to the course every day.
“This is so fun. Isaac and Gage go out all the time and play golf together. It’s cool and fun and best-friend bonding time. They have fun and are not on a (electronic) device.”
Tom Boos, one of the tournament directors, said he used to watch his son Jackson Boos, who played golf at Billings Central, compete in the junior tournaments.
“My son played junior golf and participated in the Optimists events for years,” he said. “It is exciting for me to see these kids come out. They are used to competitive golf. Having my son play competitive golf, I got to watch the next generation of golfers and the future high school stars.”
Renzi Lee, the PGA head golf professional at Lake Hills, remembers playing in the Optimist tournaments. Multiple times Lee said he qualified to play at either the International finals in Florida, or the Canadian nationals.
Lee, smiling brightly when recalling the memories, said the Optimist golf tournaments are a good setting to improve a young golfer’s game.
“First of all, it’s a way to test your skills against folks in your local area,” the Billings native and former Billings Senior star said. “And it steps up to regionals and a couple provinces and a couple states. You get to see where you are at as you are developing your game.”
“I played in it growing up and I was looking forward to it always. It was a qualifier to get you somewhere more prestigious. Once you get that national stuff, the colleges start looking at you.”