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Photo gallery: Farmers Insurance Open helps school area kids in the game and science of golf

Seventh-graders from San Diego’s Millennial Tech Middle School visit Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla ahead of this week’s tournament to hear from pro golfers, learn about careers in the industry and more.

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It’s customary in January for top professional golfers to descend on Torrey Pines Golf Course for the Farmers Insurance Open. And that’s certainly happening this week as the PGA Tour event returns to the La Jolla greens.

But two days before the competition begins Wednesday, Jan. 25, a group of area seventh-graders was receiving the star treatment.

With something for every guest — from hardcore golf fans to others simply looking for entertainment — the Farmers Insurance Open pro tournament is headed back to Torrey Pines Golf Course as La Jolla’s premier annual golf event.

The San Diego chapter of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America welcomed about 65 students from Millennial Tech Middle School in San Diego’s Encanto neighborhood for a First Green event Jan. 23 on Torrey Pines’ North Course.

First Green focuses on principles of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), providing students with hands-on learning opportunities in a real-life setting.

The program also exposes students to golf while showcasing careers in the industry.

The participants at Torrey Pines rotated through golf-related science workshops, listened to information from golf course managers and others, asked questions of professional golfers and watched driving and putting demonstrations featuring some of the Farmers Insurance Open entrants.

The event was planned “to showcase job readiness training, education opportunities within the game of golf … hospitality and tourism in San Diego,” said Jennifer Cota of The Century Club of San Diego, the nonprofit that organizes the Farmers Insurance Open.

The visit by the Millennial Tech students was part of the tournament’s “Growing Golf” initiative, “which is really meant to increase diversity within the game, both from a playing perspective and outside the ropes,” Cota said.

The workshops included lessons on water conservation and irrigation, soils, wildlife and habitat/environment management, and tools to use on the greens, such as drones.

During lunch, the students were introduced to a panel of golf professionals with expertise on managing a course and learned about their career paths.

Millennial Tech Principal Nicola Labas said “the ‘wow’ factor of being at Torrey Pines Golf Course gives [the students] the hook to learn about all … the different careers that go into just maintaining a golf course. They’re learning about different soils ... they’re learning about the wildlife that’s here.”

Labas said the students were chosen for the program based on their grades. “They’re super excited. I’ve never really seen them so interested in the different activities,” she said.

PGA Tour golfer Rickie Fowler told the students that he started playing in tournaments at age 4. “I get to do something I love for a living, which is pretty special,” he said.

Michael Herrera, a standout on the Advocates Professional Golf Association Tour who received a sponsor exemption to play in the Farmers Insurance Open, said he “picked up the game with just a little bit of curiosity” while growing up in Moreno Valley in Riverside County.

He encouraged the students to pick up the game as well. “This game can take you a lot farther than just playing professionally,” he said, adding that golf also is a networking tool.

Fowler said golf has taught him that “how much work you put into it is basically what you get out of it. It’s a game you can play forever.”

While participating in the putting and driving showcase, pro golfer Kamaiu Johnson shared that one of the students in attendance said he didn’t play golf because he’s not rich.

Johnson, who started playing at age 14, said he wasn’t rich either, growing up in a single-parent home.

“Golf saved my life,” he said. “I was an eighth-grade dropout and [had a] really troubled childhood, hanging around the wrong people. Golf … has gotten me around great people. I really encourage all of you to get into it.” ◆