Golf’s present meets future in Aspen
ASPEN Moments after he stepped foot on the Aspen Golf Course, Ryan Hietala’s memories came rushing back.It was here that the former Aspen Junior Golf product walked to the 16th hole from his home on Cemetery Lane to collect golf balls in the rough and creeks, which he sold to locals in egg crates. It was here that, during winter, he used a rake to clear a patch of grass to practice his chipping and putting. It was here that he worked in the cart shack, washing clubs for an impressive clientele to make a few extra bucks.”My parents used to say that I was the mayor of Aspen – I knew Buddy Hackett, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell,” the current Nationwide Tour player joked Monday. “This is where it all started, and it’s good to be back.”
Things have changed since 1989 when the freckle-faced, red-haired Hietala, one of Aspen Junior Golf’s first participants, moved to Tucson, Ariz., to pursue the sport full time. Hietala, now 33, returned to the Aspen course Sunday for the first time since 1992, when he won an American Junior Golf Association title. In between, Hietala was an All-American at the University of Texas-El Paso and has played professionally for nine seasons. Last year he competed on the PGA Tour.Monday, he was back in familiar territory. He joined a group of the PGA’s top players – Chris DiMarco, Stewart Cink, Tim Petrovic, Brett Wayment and Pat Perez – for a junior golf clinic and pro-am. Aspen’s junior golf program has blossomed in the years since Hietala used to walk the local fairways. That fact was evident Monday when hundreds of wide-eyed young golfers lined the ropes surrounding the driving range to catch a glimpse of the players in action.While he admitted that DiMarco and Cink were the draw – one youngster invited Cink to his November birthday party – Hietala’s relaxed demeanor and booming drives garnered much admiration.
And his experience in the Aspen program was something the other players could not match.”I’m the first [Aspen] junior golfer to make the tour, so I can offer some kind of feedback,” he said.That information wasn’t lost on Bobby Moyer. And the 12-year-old, one of six junior golfers chosen to caddy for the pros Monday, took full advantage.Moyer leaned on Hietala for tips on course management and maintaining a positive outlook, he said. Hietala also disclosed his mindset as he approached each shot. “Watching his ball flight was amazing,” Moyer said. “He gives me something to strive to be.”
Moyer taught the pro a few things, too. He lined up a shot from 105 yards in the 16th fairway and knocked the shot to within 3 feet – and inside Hietala’s ball.”He hit a driver, wedge, then birdied from the blue tees – he’s 10 times the golfer I was at 13,” Hietala said of Moyer, who he jokingly referred to as Owen Wilson the entire day. “But I see a lot of myself in him.”Moyer said his favorite player is Colombian Camilo Villegas. But he and the other young golfers – who had the rare chance to mingle with the pros in an informal and friendly environment – may soon change their minds.”It’s important for these kids to see that we’re not untouchable – we’re regular guys that like to have fun,” DiMarco said. “I’m fortunate enough to have gotten to meet [Aspen Junior Golf director] Alden [Richards], and I’m happy to support him. Aspen feels like a home away from home, and when you find a place like that, you want to stay.”
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Hietala said he’s grateful to return to Aspen. He regrets losing contact with Aspenites who helped shape his life and career, but, when he received a letter from Richards last year inquiring about his interest in returning to support the program, he didn’t hesitate.He was on hand for a similar pro-am fundraiser last year at the Snowmass Club. And he’s hoping his involvement becomes an annual occurrence.”Obviously I’m not in the financial situation like the other players to be able to help out as much, but I’d love to keep coming back and helping in any way possible,” he said. “Aspen has a special place in my heart.” Jon Maletz’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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