A Cal U PGM student helps a girl putt. No one knows whether the free golf program offered by the Professional Golf Management program is training the next Annika Sorenstam or Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

But it’s certain that the 8- to 10-year-olds involved are learning valuable life skills during the 12-week educational program for girls.

Activities focus on golf, but also include strength training, cardiovascular conditioning and yoga, along with educational material from the Women’s Sports Foundation’s GoGirlGo! Curriculum.

“The Women’s Sports Federation’s plan is to positively introduce girls to sport without a lot of pressure and in a fun environment that uses golf as a gateway to talk to them about other things,” said youth program director Dr. Vanessa MacKinnon, assistant professor and internship coordinator for the PGM program.

Each weekly session in Cal U’s indoor golf facility inside Gallagher Hall begins with a half-hour discussion of topics such as proper eating habits, stress prevention, positive body image and even substance abuse.

“I know they’re very young, but it’s never too early to discuss with them why smoking and drinking are bad,” MacKinnon said. “These discussions are in an all-girls environment, so they’re comfortable with talking about each topic.”

Along with MacKinnon other PGM faculty, students and staff members volunteer to help with the program. Members of the women’s studies program, Options@CalU and the Department of Health Science have led the discussions.

After their weekly talk, nearly 20 young golfers hone their game. They practice putting and chipping, use a driver to perfect their full swing, and spend time on the PGM simulators.

“I’ve golfed before, but I’m really learning and getting better because I get to play more,” said Martyna Maley, 8, from Rostraver Elementary School. “The lessons (talks) when we start help me think more about things.”

The free program is also paying off for PGM students such as junior Chris Rhein, who aspires to be a head golf professional at a high-end private golf facility.

Conducting junior clinics is an important aspect of internships, he said, and his volunteer work may enhance his options. “A lot of our teaching will be with young people, and this really prepares us. If the route I want to take does not work out, I can go into the teaching aspect of the game.”

Rhein pointed out that golfers who are properly trained when they’re young develop “muscle memory” that can serve them well in years to come.

“It’s definitely enjoyable for us, and very beneficial to (the girls),” Rhein said. “You can tell they love it, and in teaching, that’s one of the greatest feelings you can have.”

Even the golfers’ parents are fans of the program. Dr. Mary Kreis, an associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies, enrolled her daughter, Viva, 9.

“It’s a really neat program, and I am glad my daughter goes,” said Kreis, who competes in marathons. “They’re learning a great game, getting exercise and also learning important information about life.”

“I like that we get to meet a lot of people, and all of it is fun,” her daughter added. “I enjoy coming.”