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August 2019

Where Golf’s Future Lies

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Junior Golf is A Bright Light in the Game
 
By Sally J. Sportsman
 
While for some traditionalists, youngsters at golf facilities once might have seemed like a distraction, that perception has evolved, especially over the last decade. Junior golf now is considered an integral part of the game, even a paramount component to ensure that it flourishes long-term.
 
Golf courses welcome youngsters – their current and future customers – with a variety of learning options for every skill level. Indeed, a proliferation of junior golf programs has sprung up nationwide.
 
“Our goal is to get kids plugged in with the right fundamentals and put them on the right path to becoming lifelong golfers, all while keeping it fun,” says David Damesworth, PGA head golf professional at Orange Tree Golf Club in Orlando, Florida. “We’ve had kids who started in our program 10 years ago who now play high school golf.
 
“It’s cool to impact those youngsters and be a positive influence.”
 
Orange Tree Summer Golf & Fitness Camp, for boys and girls ages six through 16, offers three-day camps throughout the summer, taught by PGA golf professionals and TPI golf fitness instructors. The camps, limited to 30 juniors each week, are open to children from other facilities in Central Florida, too.
 
“Our camps definitely result in increased revenue for us,” Damesworth says. “Sales of clothing, shoes, gloves and hats, all in junior sizes, are greatly expanded as a result of our camps, and a custom fitting cart leads to the sale of about six dozen sets of junior golf clubs each summer.”
 
At Meadowbrook Country Club in Ballwin, Missouri, one result of the club’s junior golf program has been the growth in legacy memberships.
 
“Kids feel comfortable at the club, grow up in the environment, learn the value of membership and what it means,” says Jim Bahlinger, general manager and COO of Meadowbrook. “Then they go off to college and join a club or come home to join our club as a legacy.
 
“Our legacies are now about 10 percent of our membership, and growing.”
 
Revenue from the junior golf programs at Meadowbrook has grown 60 percent over the last five years, according to Craig Liddle, PGA head professional at the club.
 
“All the revenue from junior golf goes to compensate my assistant professionals,” Liddle says, “our foot soldiers. Members’ children can bring guests, and we’ve opened our programs to children of our social members, too.
 
“Our social membership has grown as a result. We now have four or five former social members who transitioned to full golf memberships.”
 
Most U.S. golf facilities, both public and private, offer junior golf instruction and competition of some kind throughout the playable seasons. Some of the programs being implemented are national in scope, the result of dedicated initiatives on the part of national golf organizations to establish programs with staying power that will attract and keep junior golfers.
 
According to the National Golf Foundation, there currently are 2.9 million junior golfers in the country, most of who also have engaged in other sports. Seventy percent of junior golfers are under the age of 13, while 18 percent are teenagers. As 75 percent of them think golf is difficult, one major challenge is to keep them engaged and playing the game.
 
The First Tee, a youth development organization introducing golf and its inherent values to children and teens, offers programs through chapters in all 50 states. U.S. Kids Golf, a junior-golf equipment company, has the U.S. Kids Golf Coaches Institute, through which youngsters can receive instruction and coaching. The ANNIKA Foundation, with Annika Sorenstam at the helm, provides opportunities in women’s golf at the junior, collegiate and professional levels while teaching the importance of health. Drive, Chip & Putt, a free nationwide junior skills competition open to boys and girls ages seven through 15, is a joint initiative founded in 2013 by the Masters Tournament, the U.S. Golf Association and the PGA of America. And LPGA*USGA Girls Golf is the only national junior golf program that specializes in providing girl-friendly environments for juniors to learn the game of golf.
 
The concept of teaching golf in schools has taken root. More than 10,000 elementary schools have The First Tee National School Program, and the TGA Premier Golf program is in more than 3,400 schools and facilities. Some schools are teaching golf in physical education classes. Twenty-six percent of children in the U.S. between the ages of six and 17 have been introduced to golf in schools. Research shows that reaching young people at an early age with exposure to golf and its values positively influences their perceptions about the game and generates their interest.
 
For youngsters who advance through learning and playing at local courses and clubs, competitive golf is an alluring choice. PGA Jr. League, a PGA of America youth golf program open to boys and girls ages 13 and under, combines fun team golf experiences with expert coaching from PGA and LPGA Professionals. During the course of one game, teams play four 9-hole matches in a two-person scramble format, reinforcing the team concept and creating a nurturing environment for learning the game. Coaches can substitute players every three holes so that all the golfers on each team can participate.
 
Another national program is Youth on Course, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization headquartered in Pebble Beach, California. Members play at hundreds of courses for $5 or less, benefit from employment through the caddie and internship program, and receive college scholarships. Currently Youth on Course serves 26 states, with the goal of delivering affordable golf in all 50 states by 2021.
 
Many advanced junior golfers experience top competitive play through the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA), a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to the overall growth and development of young men and women who aspire to earn college golf scholarships. Participants must be between the ages of 12 and 19, but may not yet be in college.
 
“It is our mission and purpose to give exposure to these fine young players so they can showcase their skills and earn a college scholarship,” says Stephen A. Hamblin, long-time executive director of the AJGA, which is based in Braselton, Georgia. “I am adamant about making sure we do the right things to help them develop the right way.

AJGA initiatives include a code of conduct, a specified pace of play and an “Added Care for the Golf Course” campaign. After each event, every player writes a thank-you note to the tournament chairman, sponsor and host venue, in the scoring tent immediately following completion of scorecards.
 
“I can’t measure the number of customers created for golf through our program,” says Hamblin, “but what I can say is that we are trying to develop golf’s next generation with the right values, respect and attitude for keeping the game great.”
 
Golf facilities that host The First Tee programs and AJGA events find the rewards to be both the satisfaction of helping grow the game and increased revenue. For example, Boyne Resorts, with 10 golf courses in several states, hosted three AJGA events last year.
 
“Junior golf events bring many families to the resort at once,” says Josh Richter, PGA Director of Golf at Boyne Resorts. “There are ancillary dollars from dining, lodging and resort activities at times of the year that otherwise would not be realized.”
 
Any given AJGA event results in a minimum of a 15 percent increase in revenue for a Boyne resort, Richter says. Souvenir and merchandise sales reflect comparable increases. Families often arrive a few days before an event and stay a few days afterwards. In addition, about 25 percent of the families return for future vacations.
 
In addition to national junior golf programs and those offered by individual courses and clubs, some grass-roots initiatives are making a difference.
 
In Sun City, Arizona, Golf Program in Schools Inc. (GPS) provides lessons to students, grades 5-9, as part of their regular physical education classes at the public schools. Started in 2015, the program gives students the change to learn the basics of golf at no cost to them or their school. They get to take field trips to the Sun City Country Club and have access to the course amenities to practice chipping, putting and driving. Along with golf skills, GPS instructors teach golf course etiquette – courtesy and respect for themselves, other students and other golfers on the course.
 
Another example is GIGL (Girls Independent Golf League), a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 2013 when sisters Jillian and Sadie Barend convinced a few neighborhood friends to help them form a team from their town of Attleboro, Massachusetts. Their father, David Barend, then approached Massachusetts Golf Links in nearby Norton about starting a league. What began with two team tournaments and 16 children that summer has grown today to multiple teams and tournaments, with players from the LPGA Tour and Symetra Tour joining other volunteer coaches who all donate their time. In addition to competitive play, GIGL Jamborees are held, team events for girls ages four through 18, no experience necessary, with clinics and on-course instruction. In 2015, GIGL Plus was launched – a local league for experienced high school and junior high players.
 
“GIGL has grown substantially,” says David Barend. “It has proven successful not only for all the girls who participate, but also financially for the golf courses we work with.
 
“For our tournaments, all the money goes to the golf courses; GIGL doesn’t take a dime, except for the small fees we collect to purchase uniforms. For three years in a row, Antigua has donated hats for the girls.
 
“Our vision has come to fruition,” Barend continues. “People think that all kids can do to learn to play golf is go to clinics or take lessons.
 
“Youngsters need to be encouraged to join a team, get a coach and learn, just like in other sports.”
 
Barend believes dedicated adults in other states can replicate the GIGL model successfully, especially where golf is played year round.
 
It seems that junior golf is thriving throughout the country, thanks to a profusion of initiatives, with great promise for the future of the game.
 
Sally J. Sportsman is an Orlando, Florida-based freelance golf writer.

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