By. Anne Delaney
NORTON, MASSACHUSETTS – Jillian Barend is a “golf kid,” her mother says. So is Jillian’s younger sister, Sadie, to a degree. And because of Jillian and Sadie and their parents, more than 600 other New England girls are golf kids in one way or another through the Girls Independent Golf League (GIGL), a Massachusetts-based league for girls ages 4-18.
“A lot of girls haven’t found their niche, or other sports weren’t for them just like they weren’t for me,” said Jillian Barend, a 14-year-old North Attleboro, Mass. eighth-grader. “It’s not a contact sport and that’s cool. I played basketball for a while and it was fine. Golf is way better.”
A few years ago Jillian and Sadie, a 10-year-old fourth-grader, wanted to play golf on a team. With their father, David, the Barends started GIGL, the only all-girls youth golf team league in New England and a textbook example of a grassroots youth sports movement.
Sara Barend, the girls’ mother and Dave’s wife, came up with the GIGL name. A third- and fourth-grade teacher in Walpole, Mass., Sara Barend was the first golfer in the family. She is Dave’s right-hand and an integral part of the nonprofit league that hasn’t earned a dime in its three years. The night before the season-opening tournament on May 1, Sara, 44, was filling out scorecards by hand and helped Jillian design a “thank you” banner.
Dave Barend, a 47-year-old public defender, is the GIGL president and commissioner who leads a cast of 15-20 dedicated and well-organized volunteers. GIGL is no laughing matter for Barend, a former stand-up comedian who is not a serious golfer.
“Dave has done a phenomenal job, as a parent who doesn’t play and who has daughters who have an interest, and he’s grown this thing in a couple of years,” said Skip Guss, a Southborough, Mass., a GIGL guest expert and owner of GolfRite, a year-round golf center. “He’s persistent to get it done. He just plugs away and I imagine being a lawyer, you have to dig for the truth and he digs and digs and digs.”
Jillian and Sadie Barend already were interested in golf when they were watching the 2013 Solheim Cup on television. They were attracted to the team event. The players were exchanging high-fives, and there was a sense of camaraderie that is a key component of why girls join sports, according to one junior golf official.
The Solheim Cup is played every two years between the United States and Europe and is the women’s equivalent of the Ryder Cup. When the U.S. won the 2015 competition, the victory in the Barend house was “bigger than when the U.S. beat Russia” in the 1980 Winter Olympics, Dave Barend told the Golf Channel.
Jillian and Sadie wanted to join their own team. Barend couldn’t find an all-girls league, so he and the girls formed one. The girls recruited neighborhood friends. They handed out fliers at school, and both girls have since done school presentations on the league.
“Girls are social and we all know that,” said Terry Wappel, a junior golf committee member with the Women’s Golf Association of Massachusetts and the U.S. Golf Association. “They need friends. A boy will go out and sit on a (practice) range until someone asks him to play. A girl will never do that. Girls don’t get involved because it is a lonely game.”
In GIGL’s first year in 2013, 16 boys and girls came to two tournaments. Dave Barend soon emphasized the league needed to be about girls. Approximately 300 girls participated in 2015 with five team tournaments and 10 GIGL Plus tournaments. More than 170 girls came to the season-opening GIGL tournament on May 1 at the Norton course. The number was the highest for a single GIGL event.
“It’s the Tiger Woods effect,” MGA Links at Mamantapett head professional Pete Walsh. “He started the last two generations of junior golf. Lydia Ko, Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson are the big ones that the girls look up to for the girls watching golf. Tiger started it.”
The league has filled a void for girls, at least in GIGL’s home area where there are very few girls high-school golf teams. GIGL Plus, a league for more advanced players 11-years-old and up, was started in 2015 to provide an option in the absence of regional high-school girls teams, either varsity and junior varsity. Approximately 70 girls participated in a GIGL Plus event last year.
Nationally, golf has become less of a lonely sport for girls in the years since the Barends started GIGL. The number of girls under age 17 playing golf in the U.S. nearly doubled from 2011 to 2014, according to the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). In 2011, 500,000 girls under 17 played. In 2014, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the number was up to 900,000.
“And that number is continuing to grow,” said Ashleigh McLaughlin, manager of programs and marketing for the LPGA Foundation and LPGA-USGA Girls Golf.
The organizations operate their own youth golf initiatives. GIGL is loosely affiliated with the LPGA in that GIGL is listed on the tour’s website as a regional option for girls’ golf.
“We are happy about any organization, whether it’s First Tee (a junior program partnered with the LPGA, PGA of America, PGA Tour and USGA), or GIGL, that’s doing good to grow the game of golf for girls,” McLaughlin said.
It’s an avenue LPGA rookie Megan Khang said she wished was an option when she was a youth golfer. Khang, 18, is from Rockland, Mass., and she appeared at a GIGL event in October 2015 and was awed by the turnout and the girls’ enthusiasm.
“I think girls need girls their own age to get in the game,” Khang said. “Whenever you’re out there, I think there is a tendency to socialize, at least I do. If a girl sees boys, it’s intimidating. I used to play at golf course and there were groups of guys and boys, but not many girls my age. If there are girls your own age it will encourage you and inspire you.”
Dave Barend’s volunteer work with GIGL is a daily labor of love. He spends at least four hours per day year round in addition to his job. He writes emails, makes phone calls, writes more emails and makes more phone calls. He contacts the golf experts who appear at GIGL, those such as Guss, Massachusetts native and former professional player Michelle Bell, teacher, author and speaker Kay McMahon and Eloise Trainor, who founded the LPGA’s Symetra Tour, formerly the Futures Tour.
These personalities, plus the appearance of female college players and young female pro players, have developed into a key part of the league with their presentations turning into mini clinics, lessons and Q&As with the girls.
At the May 1 tournament, Barend roamed the course with water and breakfast bars for the players, parents and team organizers and asked why no one was offering the girls a high five.
“I like the strategy, how you should play the ball, what clubs to use,” said 11-year-old Courtney Croak, a fourth-year GIGL player whose father, Rob, played at Holy Cross and is the team organizer for the Mansfield, Mass., team. Courtney, who has her own golf clubs, is in her first season in GIGL Plus.
“It was tough, but I didn’t do as bad as I thought,” Courtney said. There is a significant difference between Barend and the overbearing sports parents whose behavior occasionally goes viral. Barend didn’t start GIGL because he wants his daughters to someday play on the LPGA, or on the Solheim Cup team. The Barends’ motivation for GIGL was that it might be the right sport for Jillian, Sadie and other girls. “It’s truly his nature,” Sara Barend said. “Everything he does, he does full force. That’s who he is and how he gets stuff done.”
Dave Barend, who only started playing golf when he and Sara were dating, said the foundation of GIGL is the tournament play. The lessons and clinics are secondary. GIGL tournaments are nine-hole events played in an alternate-shot format at MGA Links at Mamantapett in Norton. The GIGL Plus tournaments are also nine holes and are played on the longer Locust Valley Golf Course in Attleboro.
Sara Barend played golf with her mother while growing up in Pennsylvania. Other family members were golfers, too, but mother and daughter often snuck away for Tuesday afternoon games on their own. Dave and Sara saw the game as an option for Jillian, who was diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 10 and didn’t care for more physical sports.
“To play most sports, you need some physical talents that aren’t as necessary in golf,” Dave Barend said. “In golf, you can be short, you can be tall, you can be overweight, thin, you can be fast or you can be slow.
“This is what drew me to golf to get my daughters into golf. It’s a game anybody can get good at, that’s why golf.”
Jillian had a set of Barbie clubs when she was 2 or 3, and those later belonged to Sadie. Sara took Jillian to play three or four holes at a time at MGA Links in Norton when Jillian was in elementary school, and gradually introduced her to the game.
“I was pretty bad,” Jillian said. “It was kind of fun and I got a little discouraged as any kid would. We found lessons and clinics and I stuck with it.”
Jillian began wearing a back brace for the scoliosis when she was 11. She has seen some improvement and now wears the brace 12 hours per day. She can take it off for sports. Jillian also is involved in track and field. She found an identity in golf, in part, because her back didn’t hinder her participation.
Now, a “border-line-obsessed” golfer according to her father, Jillian is pursuing other junior golf events. She belongs to a country club, looks up to LPGA player Stacy Lewis, who also has scoliosis, and Jillian wants to play in college and maybe pro golf.
“It’s definitely given her confidence,” Sara Barend said. “It’s been her thing. In school, she’s a golf kid. Every kid needs something to feel that it’s their own, like music or dance. For Jillian, it’s golf.”
Dave Barend said nearly 200 girls have registered for the season’s second event on June 26. Barend said he has had inquiries from people wanting to bring GIGL to other areas, including Rhode Island and Vermont. Barend said a league is set to go in Greenfield, Mass., about 40 miles north of Springfield.
While researching golf and girls’ sports before starting GIGL, Barend said he couldn’t find a similar model and no one he spoke with in phone calls to places throughout the United States suggested such a league was already in place. Barend isn’t trying to be the only all-girls, youth golf league in New England, in the U.S. or anywhere else. “It’d be great if there were a thousand,” he said.
- 0 – Amount of money Barend and GIGL have made since the organization began
- in 2013. All of the money goes to the golf courses, either at MGA Links at
- Mamantapett in Norton or Locust Valley in Attleboro.
3 – Number of New England states – Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New
- Hampshire – with girls who have attended a GIGL event since the first season.
4-18 – Ages of girls eligible to participate in GIGL tournaments as a member of a
- minimum 4-person team representing their hometown. Advanced players ages
11-and- up are eligible to play GIGL Plus events on a more challenging nine-hole
- course at Locust Valley in Attleboro, Mass.
9 – Number of holes for a GIGL tournament, played in an alternate-shot format.
10 – Cost in dollars per player to participate in GIGL events.
21 – Number of teams competing in 2016 season-opening GIGL tournament at
- MGA Links at Mamantapett on Sunday, May 1.
173 – Number of girls who participated in the May 1 GIGL tournament, an all-time
- high for a single GIGL event.