Junior golf programs are growing up, as more targeted and relevant approaches are helping to overcome the next generations’ initial aversions to the game.
The development and growth of junior golf programs has long been acknowledged as a critical strategy for helping to combat declining overall participation in golf. While some industry observers feel that finding ways to stem the tide of current players who are deserting the game is of more immediate importance than developing the next generation of golfers, there is no disputing the long-term need to introduce and bond youngsters to the game.
|Summing It Up
• Keep junior players active, focus on fun and strive to have them experience the full golf course (and not just the range) as quickly as possible.
Historically, most private clubs have limited those efforts to the children of members. But a number of clubs today are reaching outside their boundaries and membership rolls to develop new young players, and are doing so in some innovative ways.
While there were some variations in the scope, methodology and goals of the club professionals we spoke with, several consistent themes emerged:
• First, especially among the very youngest players, it’s important to keep them active and always doing something, rather than standing around waiting for an instructor to tell them what to do and how to do it.
• Two, make it fun—focus on having a good time, rather than the result, even if that means hitting marshmallows instead of Titleists or chipping into a plastic swimming pool instead of onto a green.
• And third, get them off the range and onto the golf course as soon and as often as possible. As juniors grow in age, interest and ability, on-course teaching can evolve further into technique and competition as young students demonstrate increased engagement and enjoyment.
The Right Start
The First Tee, whose original target market was inner-city and minority youth learning their golf and life-development skills through either First Tee-owned facilities or host public courses, has since broadened its demographic and geographic reach. That’s helped the organization (www.thefirsttee.org) become an ideal partner for private clubs hoping to reach out and touch non-member junior golfers.
Mike Keisling, Director of Golf at 36-hole Stonebriar Country Club in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, Texas, has joined with other area ClubCorp properties to find a willing partner in The First Tee of Dallas, one of the organization’s largest chapters.
“The First Tee brings 20 to 30 kids to the club for a couple of hours on Monday evenings,” Keisling says. “We give them tours of the club, talk a little bit about the game’s history, and run them through three stations—range, short game and putting. The head of the local First Tee talks about their core values and their curriculum, and we have a member captain and other volunteers from the club.
“We also help them with fund-raising,” Keisling adds. “We took in $25,000 to $30,000 through an annual tournament we put on, and some other local pros and I do a 100-hole marathon that takes in $15,000-$20,000 a year for them. The kids are great. I actually hired one of them, and he’s doing a great job for us.”
Allen Burton is both the Director of Instruction at Lake Hickory Country Club in Hickory, N.C., and the owner of the Allen Burton Golf Academy at the club. He has the dual challenge of meeting the golf-instruction needs of the club’s members and attracting enough members and non-members to his academy curriculum to make it profitable, while simultaneously demonstrating that his independent contractor relationship has value to the club.
|Can’t Beat the Price
While many junior programs are very reasonably priced, or even offered occasionally as free clinics, it’s hard to complain about a greens fee of $5 or even less, especially for courses in the Pebble Beach family like Spanish Bay and Del Monte, or nearby Poppy Hills or Quail Lodge. But that’s what juniors pay who are members of the Youth on Course network, with the organization reimbursing the courses for the difference between that rate and the course’s normal junior rate.In Northern California alone, according to Executive Director Adam Heieck, approximately 13,000 kids played a total of just under 62,000 rounds last year through the program. The organization (youthoncourse.org) is growing, with just over 1,000 juniors involved in Utah and Arizona, and recent course sign-ups in the Chicago and Kansas City markets.
“Affordability is always a concern for youngsters in golf, and we think this can go a long way toward helping that,” Heieck says. “For the courses, not only are they helping to grow the next generation of golfers, but it fills gaps in their tee sheets, and can generate some additional F&B as well.”
“My goal as the director is to see how many members we can create,” says Burton, who estimates that “35% to 50 %” of his academy students are non-members at the club. “It’s a long process and it can be a difficult one at times, but there’s revenue in it for both of us. It can be hard to prove it on the golf club’s balance sheet, but it shows up in other departments—F&B, equipment sales, memberships, etc.”
Burton’s students range from the 5-to-10-year age bracket to high school-age “elite” players. Especially for the younger set, fun is the key.
“You have to get them to like it, make golf fun,” Burton says. “We make it skill-appropriate, [by using] forward tees, teeing it up in the fairway, hitting Birdie Balls into the Golfzilla target, using SNAG clubs, whatever it takes. We play a putting game with a string across the green—it’s Speed Demon golf, and the closest player to the string gets to eliminate a player from the other team.
“We try to develop a fondness for the game, and reward the players with play money,” he adds. “On what we call Academy Payday, they can redeem their play money for gifts. We also teach respect for the game by assigning them a ‘responsibility item’ such as a divot tool. If they bring that item to class with them for 10 straight days, they get a prize.
“The ’how’ is not really important,” Burton says in describing his philosophy for teaching golf skills. “I let them try it their way and have fun. The last thing I want to do is coach the greatness out of them—it’s not ‘my way or the highway.’”
Anthony Latham, Director of Junior Golf Development for Royce Brook Golf Club in Hillsborough, N.J., a 36-hole facility with one private and one public course, has also significantly expanded the club’s reach into the community-at-large. In addition to popular summer camps that attracted nearly 200 juniors last year, helped by scholarship assistance from The First Tee and the area’s South Asian Golf Foundation, Latham and other New Jersey PGA members visit inner-city schools in their area to train phys-ed teachers in the use of SNAG equipment and other introduction-to-golf techniques.
Latham has been extremely successful in developing junior talent, with numerous top-ranked junior players nationwide and PGA Junior League teams that have reached the national finals in three of the last four years. One of the keys to his enrollment of skilled players in the Royce Brook summer-camp programs, he says, is the concept of “flex scheduling,” which allows players with busy tournament or family obligations to complete their camp-time allotments when they are available, rather than being tied to a set schedule. Extending this option, Latham says, has doubled camp registration and significantly increased overall revenue.
Kandi Comer runs the Golf Channel Academy at the semi-private Old Trail Golf Club in Crozet, Va. A nationally acclaimed instructor whose pupils include former LPGA star Dottie Pepper, Comer has built a flourishing junior program essentially from the ground up in her four years at the Academy. Starting with a program for ages 7-14, she has added a Little Linksters program beginning at age 3, and recently added an “elite” program for players hoping to move on to high-school golf and beyond.
Many of these players were introduced to the Academy, the club and golf through a season-opening junior festival that Comer organizes. Last year, in addition to refreshments and games, the festival featured appearances by Pepper and famed golf trick-shot artist Dennis Walters, to entertain the more than 600 people in attendance. Comer has also launched a highly successful PGA Junior League program, with Old Trail’s team winning the area championship the last two years.
Comer is an independent contractor, but Old Trail gets plenty of benefit from her junior recruitment and training efforts. In addition to swelling the ranks of the club’s Junior Member category, Comer organizes a parent-child golf night on Fridays that, she says, “fills the place up.” On Sunday evenings, after the Little Linksters clinics, the club’s restaurant is typically packed.
One of the reasons for Comer’s success, she feels, stems from viewing junior participants as more than just customers.“I get involved with the kids away from the golf course, too,” she says. “I go watch their basketball games, piano recitals and things like that when I can. It all helps to build relationships and trust.”
Putting In the Time
Matt Anzalone, Director of Golf at Gainey Ranch Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., has joined a number of other PGA professionals in the area to participate in golf introductory programs at local elementary and junior high schools. Anzalone and Gainey Ranch’s Director of Instruction, Randy Wittig, also serve as volunteer coaches—Anzalone for a local high-school golf team and Wittig for Paradise Valley Community College. The relationship with the college, Anzalone says, has produced four new members for Gainey Ranch.
Anzalone and other area pros have also partnered with the state Junior Golf Association and the Antigua apparel company to form and run the Antigua Tour, a series of 3-, 6-, 9- and 18-hole tournaments with junior participants grouped by age. Players can move up to the longer events once they win two events in their age bracket.