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The making of a swinger

Special to the Golf GuideAlden Richards, Aspen Junior Golf's executive director, and PGA pro Chris DiMarco.
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Alden Richards’ formula for success is simple.

“I built a program that I would have liked to be in when I was a kid,” said Richards, the executive director of Aspen Junior Golf. “The most important thing is that the kids have fun. I structured the program around that principle.”

It’s a foundation that has turned Aspen Junior Golf into one of the top juniors programs in the country. Last year, after being honored for three consecutive years as the top junior golf leader on the Western Slope by the Colorado PGA, Richards was awarded the state’s top honor for his enterprising programs.



“That’s the big one because you’re up against all the juniors programs on the Front Range,” Richards said. “It’s a huge award.”

This year, Richards has been nominated for the national award, handed out by the PGA.



But It’s not awards that Richards was thinking about when he returned to Aspen in 2001 to take over a juniors program that he said was “in need of some structure.”

He simply wanted to test the skills he had learned after a pro apprenticeship in Aspen, followed by a head job in New Jersey.

“The job in New Jersey was a good one, but I hated living there,” Richards said. “I wanted to come back to Aspen and this job presented a good challenge.”



Richards immediately instituted sweeping changes. Before his arrival, the program had been offered two days a week during the summer golf season with limited organization. Kids would show up at the Aspen Golf Course, get grouped together with an instructor, then head off to play.

The different instructors were given leeway to work with the kids on whatever they felt necessary, Richards said.

“There was no accountability,” Richards said. “Everybody would be in different groups doing different things and the executive director would just walk around and supervise.”

One of Richards’ first reforms was to make sure all of the instructors were teaching the same thing. He would start instructional sessions by bringing all of the groups together for a quick primer on something like putting, stance alignment or grip selection.

Richards’ most important innovation, and the one that a number of other junior golf programs have since adopted, was the idea to start a competitive tour.

Richards used his contacts with local pros to set up tour stops at local courses and instituted a points system to award trophies for respective age division winners at the end of the season.

Last summer, more than 70 juniors competed in the seven-week tour, held on Wednsesday nights and played on courses from Aspen to Rifle.

“It gives kids incentive to compete, and that makes them want to get better,” Richards said.

Another incentive: Richards’ connections in the golf world extend to a number of PGA pros, including Chris DiMarco and Stewart Cink, whom Richards considers close friends.

Dimarco and Cink both regularly visit the valley, including a trip every August for the Vince Gill-Amy Grant Snowmass Club Charity Classic, which raises money for Aspen Junior Golf and local non-profit Challenge Aspen.

Richards arranges for 20 of his juniors to caddie for the professionals each year in the tournament. The rest of Aspen’s juniors get to attend an exhibition put on by the PGA pros.

Cink, a two-time Ryder Cup team member who has three PGA wins in his career, said his connection to Aspen Junior Golf is a special one.

“There’s a lot of charity events out there,” Cink said. “About three years ago Alden was at a tournament and he told me about this thing. It just really struck a chord. … I love skiing, and the charities were both things I could get behind. It was a perfect fit.”

“I’m passionate about golf and I’m passionate about giving back to the game,” Cink added. “Anybody on the tour who has had any sort of success, and enjoys a comfortable lifestyle, we all owe it to the game. People come up to me and know who I am because I can play golf better than them. If it weren’t for the game, and my roots in junior golf, that wouldn’t be the case.”

Really, Richards said, he just wants kids to be interested in golf. The easiest way to do so is to get them involved with the game at an early age, which is why he started the “Future Golfers” program for juniors between the ages of 4 and 6.

Since he took over, Aspen Junior Golf has grown into a six-day-a-week operation in the summer, with participation numbers jumping from 100 to 250.

And Richards only wants those numbers to continue to grow. This summer he is instituting a new five-week long free introductory program to bring more locals to the game.

Participants will get a free T-shirt and free two-hour clinics each Wednesday starting the last week of June and running through July.

“It’s for anyone who has never participated in the game,” Richards said. “They’ll get instruction on putting, driving, short game and on general golf etiquette. It’s something that I’m really hoping will be used as a model for how to attract kids to the game.”

It might be the model that lands Richards that national award, which would be great, he said. But teaching kids the game he loves is worth a lot more than adding another plaque to the wall in his office.

“I love working with kids,” Richards said. “I love seeing them find their own passion for the game.”


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