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Armanini continues to grow youth golf game in West Maui

Armanini continues to grow youth golf game in West Maui

People Who Made a Difference: Sports Edition is a special series recognizing those in the Maui County sports community who have made significant impacts. Stories will run periodically this summer in The Maui News.

Chris Armanini saw a need and decided to take care of it.

The 33-year-old Baldwin High School and University of Hawaii-Hilo graduate is the lead teaching professional at Kaanapali Golf Courses. But to many of the youth golfers in West Maui, he is coach.

With the COVID-19 pandemic wiping out the Maui Interscholastic League golf seasons and limiting travel on the Hawaii State Junior Golf Association calendar since March 2020, Armanini has set up several programs to get young Maui golfers out on the course.

Last week, Armanini guided his inexperienced 17-under Kaanapali team to a second-place finish in the Aloha PGA Section Junior League championship at Kapolei Golf Course.

It was great to see a lot of these new kids come out, it was really good to see these kids come out and play some competitive golf,” Armanini said Friday between his day-long lessons schedule.

Since graduating from UH-Hilo, he has worked at Wailea, Kapalua and now at Kaanapali.

Since earning his Class A license in 2017, he has been nominated for Teacher of the Year in the Aloha PGA Section, won the Aloha Section two-year development award in 2019, and in 2020 he was named to the top-50 coaches among U.S. Kids Golf coaches.

The 18-member Kaanapali team included partners Gavin Melikidse and Amadeo Drechsel, Christopher Chung-Salem and Tyzo Kaska, and Arjun Patel and Andrew Nguyen in a team scramble format over two days of play.

“Of the 18 kids who showed up, there were 17 of them who have never done anything like this before, going to Oahu or playing a different course, different setting — it was totally new for a lot of these kids,” Armanini said. “Giving them the opportunity to experience it and hopefully when the state tournament gets back and more tournaments get back going, then our Maui kids will be a little bit more used to being in the spotlight.”

Armanini said the players on the Oahu team that won the 17-under Junior League title were much more experienced than his team.

“The boys held really tough, it was great to see,” Armanini said.

Chung-Salem, a 14-year-old freshman at Maui Prep, said all of his chances to play golf under Aramnini’s guidance is valuable for his future in high school golf and beyond.

“It’s great for me, it’s great experience,” Chung-Salem said. “I like the scramble format because it teaches leadership, it teaches cooperation, it’s really good for team building. I also think it teaches you how to strategize with your partner, what shots you want to hit, who goes for it, who plays safe.

“Yeah, it’s great for team bonding and great experience, as always.”

Melikidse, a freshman at Lahainaluna High School, said he was happy to have the opportunity to play golf in an organized, competitive environment.

“That’s pretty cool because I get to hang out with my dad and make new friends and stuff and still work on my golf game,” Melikidse said. “It was really helpful because I get to practice a lot more and I probably wouldn’t be going out on the course as much. It was a lot of fun.”

Junior League play on Maui lasted from March to July with 56 youths in the program. Armanini also has a more casual program for younger golfers, the Kaanapali Keiki Program.

“I’ve got about 100 in my keiki program right now, they come for lessons, practice is after school,” Armanini said.

There are a few scholarships for the keiki program available through Lahaina Junior Golf, but Armanini fights hard to keep the cost down for all participants. In the keiki program, a $25 lesson after school once a week also allows the players and family members to play as many holes as they can after 4:30 p.m. all week.

“To transfer the lessons to the golf course, and to take what they’ve learned on the lesson tee to the golf course, that’s what golf’s all about,” Armanini said. “That’s what’s so much fun about doing this type of stuff, is getting the kids out there and watching their faces when they hit that good shot.

“They run up to you and give you a high five. It’s great.”

He takes keiki as young as 4 years old.

“They’re going to be chasing butterflies at 4 years old and that’s totally fine,” Armanini said. “It’s part of the process. I’m not going to take that away from being a 4-year-old. If we’ve got to play around in the dirt, we’ll go play in the dirt a little bit. The kids, they have a great time at that age.”

He has age levels from 4 to 7 years old, 8-10, 11-13 and a high school group from 14-17 in the keiki program. He also divides the players by ability, sometimes moving younger players up an age group to keep them striving.

“It’s great to have this really big, positive drive of new golfers coming and it’s great to put programs together that they enjoy,” Armanini said. “The parents love it, the parents have fun going out there walking with their kids and learning the game of golf through their kids.

“There’s been a lot of new parents golfing, too, through this (keiki) program. So, there’s been a lot of good things coming in and I hope to make it even better next year.”

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