JJ nurtures girl power

Dean Bailey meets JJ Vallely, the man helping produce some of the North’s most talented female players, to learn the secrets of his success and what the future holds for elite girls in the region

Spend an hour in the company of JJ Vallely and you’ll be enthused.

A PGA professional for 17 years, JJ is a golf nut. Whether it’s discussing the talent of John Daly, the role parents play in the development of young athletes, the merits of clubface stability and how it applies to every golf swing, or anything in between – JJ will be able to talk with an understanding born from his love of the game.

As well as being a PGA professional at Northumberland’s Matfen Hall, JJ leads the England Golf Girls regional squad through its annual coaching programme with the support of regional manager Bryan Ross, which is made up of leading players from across our region, including recent Northern Golfer cover stars Jess Baker and Rosie Belsham.

JJ also coaches a number of our region’s most successful girls in one-to-one sessions having met the girls through the introduction of the North of England Futures – a self-funded programme which identifies ambitious players and offers a programme of coaching aimed at leading them into the England Golf Regional Squad.

“When I took on the regional girls squad we found we had an issue with player identification and retaining contact with those players who weren’t quite ready for the England squad,” explains JJ.

“I knew the success of the regional squad was based on having a treadmill of players ready to take up the spots so we set up a system to identify them.

“The aim of it all is to allow as many girls as possible to develop as top players.”

Both Jess and Rosie were identified as part of the Futures programme and JJ credits the early introduction to squad coaching with encouraging them to improve.

“The girls have really stepped up a level this season,” he says. “I felt it was going to happen soon having watched them push each other over the last three years.”

In their first year, Jess and Rosie, along with Cumbria’s Harriet Barker and Abby Roper, took a combined 50 shots off their handicaps and all four have since progressed into the Regional Squad.

“All we wanted to do for those four girls in the first Futures programme was inspire them,” adds JJ.

“We put the plan in place for them to do it – committing to that plan and working hard is all down to them and they are achieving great results.”

Those results, Jess winning the Midland U16 Girls’ Championship at Hawkstone Park and Rosie becoming the youngest-ever winner of the Northumberland County Championship, look set to lead to more titles.

“A lot of our work as a squad is about the human side of the game. We do a lot of competitive practice and build people with a strong, resilient mindset for golf. This game is a rollercoaster and learning to cope with that is as important as controlling the ball flight.

“The work goes into the time with the players and time with their parents. They have such an important role to play in each child’s development and ultimately we want the girls to feel mature enough take ownership of the process and their own golf. It takes them and their parents.”

JJ admits his work is a small part in the process, and the commitment of the girls and their competitive nature within the squads has been the key to producing so many good players in the last three years.

“Jess and Rosie have pushed each other and with players like 14-year-old England cap Caitlin Whitehead in the squad there is a lot motivating them to improve. Our job is to guide them along the path,” adds JJ.

Away from the girls’ squad, JJ is a well-established teaching professional with a number of elite players as well as club golfers on his books – as well as a successful junior academy.

“My passion is for coaching. I was inspired by Jim Hardy and Chris O’Connell about 10 years ago and I spend a lot of time working with them and my peers to develop what we do. I love studying golf swings and helping players hit more consistent shots.

“Improving as a coach never stops and I spend hours analysing players, reading about golf, talking to people about every aspect of the game – it all helps me deliver results for players,” adds JJ while swiping through swing videos and forum discussions on his phone.

JJ’s love for the game started aged 10, growing up across the road from Heworth Golf Club. By the age of 11 he was obsessed with the game.

“I was club champion by the age of 15 but I was also fascinated by how golf works,” he explains. “That early fascination was possibly the early sign that I was never destined to be a great player – the analytical side of my brain was always keen to get in the way of playing my best golf.”

Having turned pro in 2000 and played locally, JJ committed to full time coaching and has no regrets.

“When I look back, I know I was battling my game too much back then. Having played with that feeling really helps my coaching and I know what thoughts are useful for playing and practising and which aren’t.”

With such a strong stable of players, and a passion for studying the game, it seems coaching is the perfect place for JJ, who is looking forward to this year’s squad coaching and identifying the next set of Futures players.

“It’s become a bit of a cliché but developing a system of players is all about culture. We’ve worked hard to create that and we’re hopefully going to continue and improve the quality of female golfers being produced in the north of England.

“We’ve got eight very good girls in the Futures squad right now and we’re going to have some tough choices when it comes to picking the squads for 2018 – but that’s the situation we want to be in.”

We could go on for hours, with so many subjects to cover from the psychology of elite golf down to assessing the legality of near-to-anchored putting strokes – though we’ll have to save those for another day.