When Michael Lessard gives golf clinics to women, he hears a familiar refrain: "I wish I had picked the game up when I was younger."
Well, now a few more can.
This year marks the debut of the Msgr. Martin Athletic Association Girls Golf League, the first of its kind in Western New York and one of just a handful in the state.
"I wanted to see more young girls out there," said Lessard, the head pro at Alden's Kis-N-Greens Golf Course, organizer of the league and coach of Mount Mercy. "I teach a lot of women beginners, and a lot of them say 'I wish I started earlier.' That's when it kind of hit. That's how the basic idea started out."
Nardin, Mount St. Mary, Holy Angels, Mount Mercy and Sacred Heart make up the five-team league, which began play last week. Each team will play the other four twice for an eight-match schedule with the season concluding with All-Catholic Field Day in mid-October.
"I'm so excited that we're doing this this year, I'm absolutely thrilled," said Sara Mehltretter, the junior girls club champion at Orchard Park Country Club and now Mount Mercy's No. 1 player. "There's so much for girls to do with golf out there, in terms of professional golf, colleges, junior tournaments, even in the business world."
For girls at public schools, the only way to play golf is to try out for the boys team, and some do. But that means they are required to play as the boys do, from the men's tees.
Although Mehltretter is an accomplished player, even her junior interclub league allows girls to play only in "exhibition" matches that do not earn points.
"In order to play high school golf, girls have had to try out with boys and play by their rules, and that's not the way things work," Mehltretter said. "(In interclub play) there are a lot of girls exhibition rounds, and that's bothered me. It's great to have the school league and have the opportunity to go out and compete against each other in matches and be part of a team.
"Last week we had a match against Nardin and it was absolutely pouring, but we had a great time. By the end of 2 1/2 hours we were soaked to the bone but we had 20 girls out there and we had so much fun."
There is no public school state championship for girls golf, although some parts of the state have leagues. Section I (Westchester) has had leagues for several years.
Msgr. Martin rosters consist of 10 members (six play in matches), ranging from girls who play in local junior tournaments to those just taking up the game. Nardin plays its home matches at Brighton, Mount St. Mary plays at Sheridan while Holy Angels, Mount Mercy and Sacred Heart play out of Kis-N-Greens.
Lessard said the league is being run on a "shoe-string budget." Each school contributed $50 for rules packets and postseason trophies. The players pay $6 greens fees.
More than 80 people attended an informational seminar last week to review golf's rules and etiquette. Lessard is hopeful the session can helped build credibility for the league in the eyes of college coaches.
"Nowadays there are so many scholarships available for girls -- colleges are looking to give money away," said Lessard. "It would be great to get colleges starting to look up here."
"I've talked to colleges, and being a club champion doesn't hold as much weight as saying I played on the Mount Mercy team in the Msgr. Martin League," said Mehltretter, a senior. "It's really going to give girls an edge, particularly freshmen now who will have played four years of varsity. It's great that they have this opportunity."