As clubs refocus on junior programs as a key to golf’s long-term health, they’re realizing broader payoffs by bringing in families who will use the full range of club services and amenities.
Golf’s issues today are both multi-generational and multi-dimensional—multi-dimensional in overcoming the challenges the game presents in terms of time, cost and difficulty, and multi-generational in the need to address several different and diverse age groups. Club and course owners are locked in a death struggle with competitors for current customers, at the same time the industry strives to convert potential participants such as women, ethnic minorities, lapsed golfers, or the Gen-X, Gen-Y and Millenials crowd.
|SUMMING IT UP
But the game’s long-term health still hinges on junior golfers becoming lifelong participants. And some private clubs that have successfully devoted significant resources to nourishing the crop of future golfing members are finding that in many cases, those efforts can attract new members while also binding current members more closely to the club.
“[Junior golf] is definitely an area we’re highly focused on,” says Scott Szymoniak, General Manager of Fort Collins (Colo.) Country Club, managed by Canongate Golf. “We’re really selling toward females and families, and we use our summer camp program as a selling point.”
Fort Collins’ camp differs from some clubs whose junior programs are more golf-centric; it’s a day-long offering that includes tennis, swimming, soccer and fitness, in addition to golf. The club also offers a golf-focused program that generally attracts around 150 kids during the summer, Szymoniak says.
Industry-wide, according to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), junior golf participation in the U.S. has roughly mirrored overall golf participation trends since 2000—peaking in 2005 at 3.8 million and declining dramatically by 2010 to 2.5 million. But one interesting difference in the NGF data is that junior participation did increase slightly from 2011 to 2012 (up to 2.7 million) while overall participation continued to decline.
As clubs and teaching professionals search for ways to attract more youngsters back to golf, a constant among the more successful ones is an openness to new ideas that can help keep their students engaged, enthusiastic and committed, particularly in the younger age groups. One common theme heard during discussions with a number of successful juniors instructors is the need to make sessions and lessons fun. (Ironically, this is the same strategy increasingly advocated by industry associations to make the game more appealing to all age groups.)
The invention of new games built around golf skills, the use of devices like SNAG golf equipment, hula hoops and frisbees, and a variety of other incentives are providing welcome relief from lectures about golf rules and etiquette, grip and posture. These more interactive and relaxed approaches also help youngsters burn off excess energy and take a break from the often frustrating task of getting a golf ball airborne.
New Forms of Gamesmanship
“The days of little fellows standing on the range with Dad hitting balls are long gone,” says Chris Holmes, Director of Instruction at Concert Golf Partners-owned Heathrow (Fla.) Country Club.
“We use a number of games with colored strings and targets, or balls that are colored and numbered like pool balls, where you have to make all your balls and then sink the 8-ball,” says Holmes, who was named a Top 50 Kids Teacher by the U.S. Kids Golf Foundation earlier this year. “Kids are attracted to colors, so you have to make it very bright so they’re stimulated. We also give out Jolly Ranchers candy for attendance and prizes, and we have parent-child or adult-child events.”
Participation in Heathrow’s program is robust and growing, Holmes says, with over 70 youngsters enrolled in the club’s after-school program on Wednesdays, and in a Saturday-morning class. The club’s junior program is open to non-members as well as members, with non-members paying $5 more for the program, which is $20 for members on Wednesday and $15 for the one-hour session on Saturday. The program generates other revenue as well—Holmes says he sold over 30 sets of U.S. Kids golf clubs in a four-month period.
The burgeoning PGA Junior League Golf program, which attracted nearly 9,000 youngsters age 13 and under in 2013 and projects that number to double in 2014, draws its inspiration in part from other youth sports organizations such as Little League baseball, Pop Warner football or AAU basketball. But at Brookhaven Country Club in Farmers Branch, Texas, outside of Dallas, Lead Golf Instructor Joey Anders has adopted the approach that’s worked well for the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for his club’s highly successful junior golf program. At Brookhaven, a ClubCorp facility, junior golfers progress through a series of proficiency levels, earning a distinctive and highly coveted hat signifying the next level they’ve reached.
“If I had a perfect world, I’d model instruction like a video game—as soon as you accomplish something, you move forward and you always have goals to reach, like with our hats,” Anders says. “We also have sub-levels between the hats, so there’s always something to work for. If you’re two to three years away before you’re going to reach the next level, they need something in between to keep their interest.”
Brookhaven is somewhat unique, Anders notes, in that the club offers junior memberships to those youngsters whose parents are not members, or don’t play golf. The club’s golf academy and summer camps are also open to non-members, whose parents may visit the club and buy food and beverage on their child’s junior membership number, although they don’t have access to the golf course. The junior membership, and non-member access to the academy and summer camps, have resulted in a number of new memberships for the club, Anders reports.
Brookhaven also runs numerous junior league programs, beginning as early as three years old. “As long as they can keep score and advance the ball, we have a league for them,” says Anders, who is also on the Top 50 Kids Teacher list. His credentials, and the club’s program, got another major boost last month when a former participant in Brookhaven’s program, Jordan Spieth, finished second (after leading through 63 holes) at this year’s Masters Tournament; Spieth thus became the latest in a long list of Brookhaven juniors to make a splash on the PGA Tour.
Royal Melbourne Country Club, a KemperSports-owned and operated property in Long Grove, Ill., relies heavily on its summer camps and Royal Melbourne Golf Academy to not only provide summer activities while moving children up the ladder to golf proficiency, but also to introduce youngsters and their parents to the club and its membership benefits. General Manager Mark Freemott says that last year alone, the club added two full golf members and one social membership as a result of exposure to the club’s junior golf and summer camp programming.
Launched in 1998, Club Royal Melbourne began as a summer day-care program providing golf, tennis, swimming, arts and crafts instruction, field trips and other activities. As kids aged, Freemott says, they moved into golf and tennis academies for advanced instruction. Last year the club formed the Royal Melbourne Junior Sports Academy, and this year it will launch its Junior Golf Academy for members and non-members, headed by Catalyst Performance Golf founder Mike Napoleon. The nine-week summer day camp program draws about 40 kids each summer, with 20 more enrolled in the Sports Academy and an additional 30 set for the Junior Golf Academy.
Mark Summerville, another Top 50 Kids Teacher, parlayed his Southern California high school and college golf skills, and an assistant golf pro position with long-time Southern California fixture Tag Merritt at Fairbanks Ranch Golf Club in San Diego, into his current job as an assistant pro and junior golf instructor at Philadelphia Country Club in Gladwyne, Pa. In his current position, Summerville also has an active schedule of juniors camps and clinics. He runs Saturday golf clinics throughout the summer for three different age groups (4-7, 8-11 and 12-15). The weekly clinics attract approximately 35 youngsters each Saturday, while a series of four-day summer golf camps bring in additional kids.
Like most of the other successful programs, Summerville combines golf instruction with a variety of entertaining activities, including potato sack races, long jumps in the practice bunker, or using watermelons or hula hoops as targets or obstacles for a variety of golf shots. That’s a long way from endless range sessions or etiquette lectures, for sure.