“Bye, sweetie. You did great today. I’m proud of you,” PGA Pro Sherri Pla tells one of her youngest protégés leaving the Sandhill Crane Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens after practice Tuesday afternoon.
She high-fives a little girl who just stepped off the course: “Emily, how’d you do?” Another of her junior golfers makes a shot, and she calls to him, “Nice putt, Quinn! 30-footer, making it look easy, dude!”
It’s that enthusiasm that earned Pla a spot on a national television special featuring PGA pros in different roles across the country. The special “Turning Passion into Profession” will air 2 p.m, Sunday, July 16 on CBS before the final round of the John Deere Classic golf tournament, City Manager Ron Ferris said.
He described Pla as the “Pied Piper of youth golf” in Palm Beach Gardens, someone whose “enthusiasm is just infectious.” Accurate, and a little ironic.
Pla, a Suncoast High School graduate, was a standout basketball player who considered pursuing a career in the WNBA. She was in college watching TV when she saw then NBA stars Michael Jordan and Penny Hardaway walk off the golf course together.
Pla turned to her softball coach, Joan Joyce, an accomplished golfer, and said Joyce needed to teach her to play golf so she could hit the links with the stars in her downtime when she’s a famous basketball player.
Joyce took her to an empty field to start hitting balls. The next year, one of her golf recruits didn’t play, so she put Pla on the team. The rest is history.
Pla said she has no idea why she was selected for TV special. She surmises the early success of the PGA Junior League she helped start has something to do with it.
There are 84 golfers enrolled in the inaugural season. The goal was 48, she said. The league has golfers from every demographic and skill level, Pla said, describing it as a “melting pot.”
The Junior League gives local kids a chance to go to a national championship — an opportunity they didn’t really have before, Pla said. They compete in two-person teams every Sunday at the Sandhill Crane Golf Club.
She got the news about the TV segment via an email she read at the course.
“I was just blown away,” she said. “It took me a second to kind of process.”
When reality hit, she became “super excited” for the kids to be showcased. She points to a 16-year-old practicing at the course Tuesday. She’s coached him since he was in fourth grade. “He’s like a son to me,” she says.
Five-year-old Emily Ballard is a little newer to the game. She saw her dad hitting golf balls at the course and wanted to emulate him. One of the assistant professionals noticed her interest and asked if she wanted to take lessons, dad Jason Ballard said.
She’s young and shy, but Pla and her coaches have done a good job of getting her to open up to them. And she shined when the TV cameras were on her when a crew shot Pla’s segment of the special April 30, Jason Ballard said.
“She actually did really well. Then she told mom she wanted to be on TV,” he said.
The kids’ rounds were a little slower than usual that day, Pla admitted, because they were excited and nervous. She said she appreciated the way the TV crews didn’t rush her or try to script things out.
They haven’t gotten around to planning a watch party yet.
“The real celebration was really about that day,” Pla said.