Junior Golf

“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”--Chinese Proverb

Conducting successful junior golf programs is like that proverbial tree--we should have started 20 years ago; instead, we must do it now. In order to survive and thrive, the golf industry needs more golfers. Most in the industry are aware that golf numbers are down. In addition, golf has fallen behind other sports in making it more attractive and fun for kids. Baseball has T-ball. Football has flag football. Ski resorts have the “cool” sport of snowboarding, which is marketed to its full potential by offering kids free skiing on a beginners’ hill--a  no-pressure, no-frills environment. Free! No intimidation! It can’t get much better than that.

Golf programmers need to open their arms, drop the traditions, and “yell what they sell” to attract youth to this wonderful sport. For me, this really came to light while attending the Club Manager’s Association of America national conference in Orlando a year ago. I attended a seminar given by Dottie Pepper--one of golf’s great ambassadors and now an invaluable member of the PGA of America Board of Directors. She led a seminar about youth golf and discussed ways to increase interest in the game, while preaching the importance of making golf fun and non-intimidating for kids as well as for women. For 45 minutes, she listed several great junior golf programming ideas that would create a fresh face for the sport and attract potential players. As she spoke, I completed a mental checklist of her ideas and the programs my group has been providing in the city of Ann Arbor Parks Department (Michigan) for the last 5 years. The lists were eerily similar:

  1. Make it inexpensive. Open the doors to all economic backgrounds.

Ann Arbor’s parks department has two 18-hole golf courses--Leslie Park and Huron Hills. We offer a weekly family night at both courses, where kids play free with a paying adult. Parents love it, and so do the kids. The rules on this night are a little lax, as rangers welcome families, mostly look the other way, and kill them with kindness. Since golf is supposed to be fun, Friday nights are designated as “Family Fun.” Another program instituted in 2010 is a $100 junior membership at Huron Hills Golf Course. This membership has just a $2 fee each time the kids play--with no restrictions. Each year we have seen a slight increase in the numbers sold. And just last year, we partnered with a local high school team that practices at Huron, allowing them to apply the school golf fees paid toward providing each student an annual membership.

  1. Make it faster. Play three holes or seven holes,— but just play golf.

Since Huron Hills was built in 1922, there have been many changes. Unfortunately, a four-lane parkway that severs the clubhouse and the first seven holes from holes eight, nine, and the back nine was one of those changes. Though a crosswalk and traffic light ensure the safety of the golfers crossing, as a parent I wouldn’t let my pre-teen child play there solo. Therefore, we created a seven-hole rate to allow golfers (all golfers) the chance for a quick round without having to cross the street. Parents loved the lower rates and the assurance of safety. Kids loved it because it was less intimidating. Even the seniors loved it because sometimes they just didn’t have the time or energy for a full nine holes, let alone 18. This seven-hole course has led to new customers and new promotions like “The Time Crunch Lunch,” which includes seven holes with a hot dog, chips, and soda, from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays.

  1. Make it less intimidating. Look at your course from a kid’s perspective.

While the emphasis was on making Huron Hills safer for kids to play, staff had the idea of creating a new set of tees for kids on the “front seven.” The new seven-hole “Wee Tee” course is 1,234 yards, roughly 1,000 yards less than what the normal tees play from. It is less intimidating, and kids can play a round with their parents, but from their own tees. There is even a colorful seven-hole scorecard with big boxes and lists just a few rules--the main one being “I will have fun!”

  1. Golf doesn’t have to be an individual game. Everyone needs positive influences--whether from friends or family--to keep coming out.

When Pepper discussed increasing junior participation, she emphasized the new PGA Junior League Golf (PGA JLG).This program is designed to make the game more social for kids 13 years old and younger. The league features team vs. team competitions in a structured atmosphere that provides a popular, less stressful scramble format. It is a growing program that is easy and fun to participate in. 

The city has been running a parent-child instructional league with much success. Here, parents and their kids are put in the same situation--learning side by side. Parents enjoy seeing what the kids are learning so they can expand upon it later, and kids love seeing that their parents are trying (and making mistakes) too.   

  1. To attract new golfers, golf needs a fresh face.

There are many creative options, but two have worked for us:

  1. SNAG Golf. “Starting New At Golf” is bright, big, and colorful--the way golf should be taught. SNAG programs are easy to conduct, easy to explain, and fun to teach. The clubs are lighter, bigger, and painted with bullseyes and arrows. The balls are a smaller version of a tennis ball, colorful, and fun to hit. This combination of flash and fun (and non-intimidation) creates the atmosphere most kids are looking for. Ann Arbor has been conducting SNAG classes for more than 4 years at Huron Hills, in the parks, and even in school gymnasiums--proving a golf course is not needed to introduce people to golf.
  1. FootGolf. Twenty-one-inch cups, a shorter course, and a Number-5 soccer ball make this game fun. As in golf, the object is to get the ball in the hole, but this time by kicking it. Courses can easily adapt part of their layout to allow FootGolf. It may be trendy and may get some push back from golf traditionalists, but it encourages kids and “new faces” to get out on the course. It is fun. It is outside. It introduces newcomers to the mystique of golf courses. It also brings in revenue. 

As I returned home from Orlando, Pepper’s words kept resonating within me. Her belief that all of us have a role to play in growing the game has stayed with me, and I would argue that it also should with you. I believe the time is now. Do what you can with what you have and where you are; don’t get discouraged if you don’t reap grand results overnight. Like that proverbial tree, results come with time and attentive care. Choose one or more of the suggestions above, and develop it to fit your market--your course. Then invest time, commit staff members, market it, and “let it grow.” Twenty years from now all of us will enjoy the results.

Douglas Kelly is the director of golf for the city of Ann Arbor, Mich. Reach him at (734) 794-6246, or dkelly@a2gov.org.