A movement to get young athletes on the fairway is stirring—and it just may save golf for another generation
hen 11-year-old wunderkind Lucy Li stole the spotlight at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open Championship in June, fans may have taken that as a sign of golf’s bright future. Thanks to technology, there are certainly more training resources available than at any other time in the history of the sport, and manufacturers’ marketing hype perennially touts greater distance and more forgiveness with today’s clubs and balls. But Li, who turned in a respectable performance yet didn’t make the cut, is a prodigy. The general state of golf looks less promising, with participation numbers having dropped by about 24% since 2002.
No longer able to hide from the reality that golf may be too hard, too expensive and too slow for 21st-century lifestyles, in 2014, one of the sport’s leading equipment companies, TaylorMade-adidas Golf, unveiled Hack Golf, a crowdsourcing initiative aimed to gather and cull radical ideas to boost golf’s participation.
“Kids’ attention spans are shorter than ever before, and there are more things competing for their time,” says Charlie Kautz, the project manager at Hack Golf. “Golf is hard, and those who don’t have it instilled by their parents don’t see how it will play a role in their lives later on.”
Plus, one of the game’s longtime problems is that unlike other youth activities, such as Boy Scouts of America or karate lessons, golf doesn’t have a graduation process based on a clearly defined set of accomplishments. “Improvement is very gradual,” Kautz says. “There isn’t the black and white of winning and losing, and there’s not the instant gratification kids demand from recreational activities.”
To address those challenges, many have embraced the idea of livening up the standard golf experience with innovations designed to attract a younger crowd. Two-Hour Round, one of the more popular ideas to surface on the Hack Golf website, is a faster-play concept being tested on courses in Minnesota. And this spring, Hack Golf introduced an experiment that involves increasing the diameter of holes from 4.25 inches to 15. (At present, there are 100 courses around the country signed up to receive equipment for installing the larger holes.) Another leader in this area is Topgolf, which turns a dreary driving range into a modern entertainment facility, complete with music, drinks and high-tech gadgets like “microchipped” balls for keeping track of how you’re doing. In addition, RippedLinks, which bills itself as the X-Games of golf, breaks with traditional golf altogether, offering a rock-festival atmosphere and motorized long boards that you can ride from the tee box to the green (yes, you read that right). Its first-ever competition will be held in Vancouver, British Columbia, this fall.
lthough efforts like Hack Golf hit the scene just recently, some organizations started grooming young golfers well before the industry admitted a problem. Starting New at Golf (SNAG) was founded by former pro Terry Anton in 2001 and consists of a learning curriculum as well as convenient equipment that can be set up anywhere. SNAG’s club, made with a fiberglass shaft and a plastic head, is weighted to mimic a real golf club, and the golf ball, which is slightly smaller than a tennis ball, is regulation weight. The target, known as a Flagsticky, is not a flag in a hole but a weighted cylinder that's covered in adhesive. The program is currently used in 15,000 schools and golf facilities, Anton says, where it exposes some 4 to 5 million kids to the concept of golf. Holes can be set up in any open area, from soccer fields to back yards to beaches.
Although golf is an individual sport, the PGA of America finally may be getting hip to the fact that kids like to don uniforms and play sports together as a team.
In Japan, SNAG has been embraced wholeheartedly as a way of introducing kids to the sport, and several annual SNAG tournaments for kids are aired on national television. “The main point of SNAG Golf is to serve as a feeder system for every type of regular golf,” Anton has said publicly. “The body movements and playing skills required to succeed at SNAG are the same as for regular golf.”
Kate Tempesta takes a similar approach, teaching young children to play at the Urban Golf Academy, which she founded in 2008. Mainly geared toward children ages 4 to 7, UGA’s learning exercises might involve models of the solar system, with the kids learning distance control by hitting to Jupiter and Mars, and animal references used to describe swing speed and tempo. Putting alignment is learned on makeshift train tracks, with stops laid out at varying distances.
“Teaching children golf has to be from their point of reference and their mode of learning,” Tempesta says. “It’s not me lecturing them on what not to do but creating an environment where they can experiment and find out what they can do.”
Along those lines, although golf is an individual sport, the PGA of America finally may be getting hip to the fact that kids like to don uniforms and play sports together as a team. In 2011, aware that sports like soccer offer parents fixed costs, time commitments and season lengths, the organization debuted PGA Junior League Golf. While the PGA’s First Tee program exposes the game to children who might not otherwise discover it, its junior league is more akin to Little League baseball, with children competing on uniformed teams and parents who are actively involved. “It engages the entire community, and kids just love it for the fun and team component that they gravitate to in other sports,” says Darrell Crall, chief operating officer of the PGA of America. “The program is up about 500% since its inception.”
What’s clear is that for golf to thrive, the golf community must redefine what it means to play the sport, placing less emphasis on the four-hour, 18-hole game. When two children shoot hoops in their driveway, “there are no uniforms, no shot clocks, no four quarters, no referee, but a half-hour later, they’re going to say they played basketball,” Crall says. “So if I go to the practice range with my son and hit some chips and putts, hey, we played golf.”
- Courtesy of RippedLinks
- Courtesy of Topgolf
- Courtesy of Topgolf
- Courtesy of Topgolf