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Hunt: Breaking down the best players on tour by category

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I’m often asked by my readers what current PGA Tour player’s game I would prefer to have based upon my statistical research. To answer their question, I decided to look at the data and split the game into certain key metrics and base it upon a Tour player’s history. Hopefully for those at home, this will get people pointed in the right direction as to which players to observe when it comes to certain categories of the game.

DRIVING THE BALL

Boo Weekley

Variables to consider:

  • Driving distance.
  • Fairway percentage.
  • Average distance from the edge of the fairway.
  • Percent of times in a fairway bunker.
  • “Missed Fairway — Other.”

Based on those variables, I use an algorithm that determines how effectively a player drives the ball. I call it “driving effectiveness.”

I also consider how well a golfer drives the ball off the tee when he is not hitting his driver. Looking at ShotLink data, I can tell you that most golfers would be surprised how many Tour players struggle hitting a 3 wood off the tee. We also have to consider ball height as in general, as high ball hitters have statistically fitted into today’s modern courses. I believe this is because the modern TPC courses are filled with forced carries.

With that, I would pick Boo Weekley, who has finished in my top 10 in Driving Effectiveness in each of the last three seasons. He’s one of the best fairway wood players in the game as well. He hits it long, accurate and precise.

Honorable Mention: Keegan Bradley, Graeme McDowell, Hunter Mahan, Graham DeLaet
Top Newcomer: Jordan Spieth

BIRDIE ZONE PLAY (75 to 125 YARDS)

Steve Stricker

Birdie Zone play (along with the rest of the zones) is based on the player’s average proximity to the cup. What I have generally found is that the golfers who perform best from the Birdie Zone tend to have less forward shaft lean at impact. There are some players who are usually very good Birdie Zone players such as Sergio Garcia. This makes me believe that Birdie Zone play is more about controlling the shaft lean and that the players with less forward shaft lean tend to do the best job of controlling it.

There are quite a few players on Tour that consistently perform well in the Birdie Zone, but I would pick Steve Stricker above them all based on his performance over the years.

Honorable Mention: Brian Gay, Camilo Villegas, Charlie Wi, Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel
Top Newcomer: Paul Haley II

SAFE ZONE PLAY (125 to 175 YARDS)

Bud Cauley

The Safe Zone consists of short and mid irons for Tour players. It is also the zone where the most frequent amount of approach shot happens.

There are generally three ways to become extremely good in the Safe Zone:

  • Keep the drive in the fairway a high percentage of time (80-plus percent).
  • Become an excellent player out of the rough.
  • Be a superior irons player from this distance.

For this article, I’m more concerned with the golfer’s pure ability to hit shots from this distance instead of the golfer who consistently keeps his ball in the fairway and ends up having an easier approach shot into the green than the golfer who is hitting shots out of the rough.

Out of all of the players, I would give this to Bud Cauley, as he has been excellent the past two years from the Safe Zone, whether he is hitting it from the fairway or the rough.

Honorable Mention: Lee Westwood, Tim Clark, Luke Donald, Ken Duke, Rory Sabbatini
Top Newcomer: Jordan Spieth

DANGER ZONE PLAY (175 to 225 YARDS)

Robert Garrigus

There is a misconception that long hitters or excellent drivers of the ball goes hand in hand with good Danger Zone play. The assumption is that a long hitter will be hitting shorter clubs into the hole, and therefore has an easier shot. While that is true, he still has to be able to hit the ball well even if he has a shorter club. And there are plenty of excellent drivers of the ball that cannot hit it from the Danger Zone (i.e. Blake Adams, John Rollins and Bill Haas). Conversely, there are excellent Danger Zones that are terrible drivers of the ball (Mickelson, Romero and Michael Thompson).

One way to “cheat the system” is for players to keep the ball in the fairway when they are in the Danger Zone. I recommend this for ALL golfers when they are facing a very long par 4. Focus on finding the fairway with your driver instead of trying to swing harder in hopes of gaining a few yards.

Like the Safe Zone, I’m more interested in a “pure Danger Zone player” than one who smartly finds the fairway here repeatedly. That’s why I take Robert Garrigus. Most of the longer hitters on Tour hit very few of their Danger Zone shots from the rough because they usually are rarely in the Danger Zone on long par 4’s. Instead, they are usually hitting these Danger Zone shots from the tee box on par 3’s.

Garrigus is one of the exceptions, and he does hit quite a few Danger Zone shots from the rough, which indicates he is fairly conservative off the tee. However, he’s continually one of the best on Tour from the Danger Zone and is ranked first, by a long shot, from the Danger Zone this season.

Honorable Mention: Jim Furyk, David Toms, Boo Weekley, Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods
Top Newcomer: D.H. Lee

225 to 275 YARDS ZONE

THE PLAYERS Championship - Round One

This zone is what I call a “volatile” metric, meaning that players rarely perform well from here year after year. One year a player may be one of the best on Tour and then the next year they may be one of the worst. We start to see this distance favoring longer hitters a little more noticeably.

It’s hard to argue against Tiger, since no one has hit more clutch shots from this distance than he has over the years.

Honorable Mention: Gary Woodland, George McNeill, Boo Weekley, Scott Stallings, Michael Thompson
Top Newcomer: Morgan Hoffmann

SHOTS FROM THE ROUGH

Phil Mickelson

Shots from the rough are a bit difficult to quantify because rough tends to get longer as the ball is hit farther away from the fairway. While the data suggests that shots from the rough favor players who generate more club head speed, there are plenty of players with less club head speeds that play well from the rough. But, the issue may be that those lower club head speed players are keeping the ball closer to the edge of the fairway and are hitting from shorter rough grass.

Typically, Sergio Garcia has been one of the very best players from the rough over the years. However, I would take Mickelson, who has been practically as good. And if there was ever a golfer I needed to hit an impossible shot from the rough, it would be Lefty.

Honorable Mention: Sergio Garcia, Chris Couch, Dustin Johnson, Jonathan Byrd, Ken Duke
Top Newcomer: Morgan Hoffmann

SHOTS FROM THE FAIRWAY

Steve Stricker Fairway

Shots from the fairway actually have a far greater correlation to a golfer’s success on Tour than shots from the rough. That’s because most of their approach shots come from the fairway or the tee box. Therefore, shots from the fairway do not favor any style of play other than quality ballstrikers.

For my money, I would take Steve Stricker in a Big Break style contest if every shot was from the short grass. Stricker also finished first in my Shots from the Fairway metric in 2012.

Honorable Mention: Jeff Maggert, Jim Furyk, Rory McIlroy, Webb Simpson, Tiger Woods
Top Newcomer: Brian Stuard

PLAYING IN WINDY CONDITIONS

Charl Schwartzel

I have been doing some preliminary research on playing into the wind. From what I have researched thus far, it tends to favor golfers whom have a downward attack angle with the driver and are very good from the Birdie Zone. My initial thoughts is that the downward attack angle keeps the ball low, which makes them more comfortable in the wind. I think the Birdie Zone play has to do with having more Birdie Zone shots on the par 5’s and thus, the better wedge players can convert birdies on those holes.

My initial research shows that the best player in windy conditions (13-plus mph winds) is Charl Schwartzel.

Honorable mention: Tiger Woods, Boo Weekley, Chris Stroud, John Merrick, Trevor Immelman
Top Newcomer: N/A

SHORT GAME PLAY (LESS THAN 20 YARDS)

2006 PGA Championship - Round One

Part of short game play is not only the golfer’s skill around the green, but where they leave their approach shots. It is impossible to decipher where exactly the approach shots are left. That would make a strong case for Mickelson. But, I will go with Chris Riley, who has consistently been a top-5 player in Short Game play for years.

Honorable Mention: Phil Mickelson, Brian Gay, Charlie Wi, Ian Poulter, Jerry Kelly
Top Newcomer: James Hahn

PUTTING

Luke Donald Putting

This is based off the metric “Putts Gained.” The research has shown that putts from 3 to 15 feet have the largest correlation to Putts Gained performance. This is in part because putts made from longer than 15 feet are a volatile metric. In fact, the average Tour player makes one birdie putt from longer than 25 feet every 98 holes they play. As I have discussed here before, going low on Tour is about getting the ball inside 15 feet to the hole for birdie on a consistent basis — it is not about making a lot of bombs.

There are a lot of terrific putters on Tour. But, the one player who has stood out has been Luke Donald. Donald ranked first in Putts Gained in 2010, 2011 and 2012. He “slipped” last year falling to third in the metric.

Honorable Mention: Greg Chalmers, Aaron Baddeley, Tiger Woods, Bryce Molder, Brian Gay
Top Newcomer: Russell Henley

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Richie Hunt is a statistician whose clients include PGA Tour players, their caddies and instructors in order to more accurately assess their games. He is also the author of the recently published e-book, 2015 Pro Golf Synopsis; the Moneyball Approach to the Game of Golf. He can be reached at ProGolfSynopsis@yahoo.com or on Twitter @Richie3Jack. GolfWRX Writer of the Month: March 2014 Purchase 2015 Pro Golf Synopsis E-book for $10

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8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. B MAC

    Jul 13, 2013 at 3:36 am

    Putting brandt snedeker ??

    • Richie Hunt

      Jul 22, 2013 at 10:37 am

      I agree. He’s one of the best on Tour. I would still take Luke Donald over him because that’s how incredible of a putter Luke Donald is.

  2. wayne defrancesco

    Jul 10, 2013 at 9:38 pm

    You mention that from 75 to 125 yards players with less forward shaft lean tend to be better. Less than what? Poor players tend to have none, and so I end up teaching them to get as much as possible. What are the extremes? What is too much and what is optimum? What is the average for all players and what is Stricker’s average? What do you suggest as a goal? Is it different for different types of grass? Do it change for uneven lies?
    As you can see, there are a lot of interesting questions when it comes to forward shaft lean. Rather than saying “less is better” it might be more instructive to be more detailed.

    • John

      Jul 13, 2013 at 9:09 pm

      I think he’s refereeing to your typical good ballstriker, people who can get around a course wit short g
      Ame dictating score, not your average bloke who’s struggling to hit a 9 iron onto a green.

    • Richie Hunt

      Jul 22, 2013 at 10:35 am

      Wayne,

      I try to stay away from actual instruction when doing these columns. I feel that is something best left to the professionals like yourself.

      My comment was in regards to Tour players. The better Birdie Zone players tend to have less forward shaft lean at impact compared to the Tour as a whole. There are some players like Sergio that do quite well from this distance. However, Sergio has shown a lack of consistency from this distance over the years. Some year’s he’s great, other years he’s poor.

      From the BZ for Tour players, it’s really all about distance control. When Tour players hits shots from longer distances, we start to see golfers with more forward shaft lean at impact doing better in these categories.

      That’s why I tend to believe that BZ play is really about controlling the lean and there appears to be a correlation between players with less shaft lean on Tour and their ability to control that lean.

      Obviously, your 20 handicap can likely use more forward shaft lean in general. But, if you have a 5 handicap that has major distance control issues with a wedge in their hand, they may want to develop a wedge swing where they have less forward shaft lean to help remedy that issue.

  3. Tom Miller

    Jul 9, 2013 at 10:53 pm

    Next year you should add bunker shots / sand saves.

    • Richie Hunt

      Jul 10, 2013 at 8:59 am

      Thanks guys.

      Tom – I wanted to do bunker shots, but the Tour’s recording of bunker shots is too vague for my tastes. I don’t like Sand Save % as a metric because it doesn’t really tell us if the golfer is a good bunker player or if they are a good putter.

      They do have proximity to the cup from the sand, but it is for ALL greenside bunker shots. The problem is that the distances on those bunker shots can vary. So a golfer who is hitting it closer may be doing so because they have a shorter shot to begin with.

      I have followed 20 different players for a project I’m doing throughout the year on Shot Tracker. From the limited data I have, I believe that Jason Day is the best bunker player on Tour.

  4. paul

    Jul 9, 2013 at 9:32 pm

    I love golf stats and read all articles about them. keep it up!

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Opinion & Analysis

The numbers behind “full scholarships” in NCAA men’s college golf

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If you are in the world of junior golf, you’ve probably heard about a young man you know who’s getting that coveted full ride to college, maybe even to a Power-5 school. With all the talk in junior golf about full scholarships, and a lot of rumors about how many are available, we decided to poll coaches and gather some real data about “full scholarships.”

So, what did we find out? In total, we got responses to a voluntary online survey from 61 men’s D1 coaches, 19 men’s D2 coaches and 3 NAIA coaches (83 total). On average, the coaches in the survey had 11.8 years of coaching experience. Of the coaches that responded, 58 of the 83 coaches reported having zero players on full ride. Another 15 coaches surveyed reported having one player on full ride. This means that 69 percent of the coaches surveyed reported zero players on full scholarship and 18 percent reported one player on full scholarship, while another four coaches reported that 20 percent of their team was on full ride and six coaches reported between 2-3 players on full ride.

We then asked coaches, “what percent of golfers in Division 1 do you think have full scholarships based on your best guess?” Here’s what the responses looked like: 25 coaches said 5 percent and 36 coaches said 10 percent. This means that 73 percent of respondents suggested that, in their opinion, in men’s Division 1, Division 2 and NAIA, there are less than 10 percent of players on full ride.

Next, we asked coaches, “what was a fair scholarship percentage to offer a player likely to play in your top 5?” The average of the 83 responses was 62.5 percent scholarship with 38 coaches (46 percent) suggesting they would give 30-50 percent and 43 coaches (52 percent) suggesting 50-75 percent. Only two coaches mentioned full scholarship.

The last question we asked coaches, was “what would you need to do to earn a full scholarship?”

  • Top-100 in NJGS/Top-250 in WAGR – 41 coaches (49 percent)
  • 250-700 in WAGR – 19 coaches (23 percent)
  • Most interesting, 17 coaches (20 percent) noted that they either did not give full rides or did not have the funding to give full rides.

The findings demonstrate that full rides among players at the men’s Division 1, Division 2 and NAIA levels are rare, likely making up less than 10 percent of total players. It also suggests that if you are a junior player looking for a full ride, you need to be exceptional; among the very best in your class.

Please note that the survey has limitations because it does not differentiate between athletic and academic money. The fact is several institutions have a distinct advantage of being able to “stack” academic and athletic aid to create the best financial packages. My intuition suggests that the coaches who responded suggesting they have several players on “full rides” are likely at places where they are easily able to package money. For example, a private institution like Mercer might give a student $12,000 for a certain GPA and SAT. This might amount to approximately 25 percent, but under the NCAA rules it does not count toward the coach’s 4.5 scholarships. Now for 75 percent athletic, the coach can give a player a full ride.

Maybe the most interesting finding of the data collection is the idea that many programs are not funded enough to offer full rides. The NCAA allows fully funded men’s Division 1 programs to have 4.5 scholarships, while Division 2 programs are allowed 3.6. My best guess suggests that a little more than 60 percent of men’s Division 1 programs have this full allotment of scholarship. In Division 2, my guess is that this number is a lot closer to 30 percent.

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Oh, To Be An (Oregon) Duck

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A few weeks ago I flew into Eugene, Oregon on a mission. I’d come to work with one my students who is a member of the Duck’s varsity golf team. I had never been further south than Seattle or further north than Monterey, so this part of the world was new to me.

What I did know was that the Bandon Dunes area had become a destination for some of the greatest golf in the world, rivaling other famed resorts around the country. The resort is just outside the quaint town of Bandon, which is a good two-hour drive from Eugene. The resort’s four courses — Bandon Dunes, Bandon Trails, Pacific Dunes, and Old McDonald — each have their own personality, but at the same time they have one thing in common: the four architects that designed them took full advantage of the natural topography, deftly weaving holes in and out along the Oregon coastline.

I was looking forward to playing two of the courses before leaving: Pacific Dunes and Old McDonald. You may find this hard to believe, but those two rounds would be my first and second of the year after a busy summer season on the lesson tee. And for that very reason, I had no expectations other than to make a few pars and enjoy the scenery.

After retrieving my luggage from the turnstile, I made my way toward the exit with luggage in tow. My rental car was just across the street in an open-air lot and as I pushed through the airport doors, I was greeted by a gust of wind and a spray of rain. “Welcome to Eugene,” I thought to myself.

The sudden burst reminded me of playing in Scotland, where the rain gives way to sun only on occasion. I surmised that the weather in the Eugene would be similar. “Don’t forget your rain suit,” a fellow professional reminded me when I told him about my trip. As it turned out, that was good advice. He had been there before around the same time of year. “You’ll be lucky if you get one good day out of three,” he said.

As I drove through the area to my hotel, what struck me the most were the large hills that commanded the landscape and the thick white clouds that seemed to cling to them like giant cotton balls.  I found a comfortable hotel just outside Eugene in the small but quaint town of Cottage Grove. In charitable terms, you could characterize my hotel as “a tribute to the past.”

I woke up at 6 a.m. the next morning, dressed and made my way downstairs to the lobby. The rain had continued through the night and as I prepared to leave the hotel,  it started to come down even harder. I stood in the lobby, waiting, while listening to the rain drops pounding on the roof,  a steady beat at first, then rising and falling like a conga drum.

I’d agreed to meet my student at 10 a.m. for a practice session and then he was slated to play nine holes with the team later in the afternoon. Based on the weather, I was concerned that the day might be a total rain-out. What I didn’t know at the time was that the school has a portable canopy that allowed the team, rain or shine, to practice on natural grass. I ran to my car ducking rain drops. The forecast called for a chance of sun in the afternoon. And this time the weather man was  right.

That afternoon I was invited to watch my student and the rest of Casey Martin’s boys play a quick nine holes at Eugene Country Club, the team’s home course. The layout is one of the most unusual that I’ve ever seen with giant trees bordering every fairway. The tips seemed to stretch up and up into the sky, piecing the low-hanging clouds above, as if they were marshmallows on a stick.

The Ducks have fielded a strong team the past two years, winning the NCAA Division 1 Championship in 2016 and then finishing second this year. A good deal of credit for that accomplishment goes to Casey Martin, who has coached the Ducks since 2006. For those who are too young to remember, Casey Martian was a teammate of Tiger Woods at Stanford University. He later competed on the Nike Tour. Casey earned his PGA Tour card in 1999 by finishing 14th on the Nike Tour, but his earnings through the 2000 season were not enough for him to retain his card, relegating him to once again to playing on the development tour. He played sporadically up through 2006. The following year, Casey assumed the job of Head Coach, which brought him back to his native Eugene.

In earlier years, Martin’s play career as a professional was hindered by the fact that he could not play 18 holes without a golf cart due to a birth defect in his right leg. The PGA Tour Board ruled against his use of a cart, maintaining that the physical act of walking was considered an integral part of the competition. Believing that he was in the right, Casey filed a suit under the Americans with Disabilities Act. His case made its way to the Supreme Court where he won. As for his competitive record, by his own admonition, he is disappointed that he didn’t play better as a professional. A primary focus of his coaching then, as he conceded, is to teach his players not to make the same mistakes he did in his own career. What struck me as unique was the passion and intensity with which he coached. I would venture that it’s the same level of intensity that he brought to the golf course when he competed.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to watch a closed-door, defensive-team practice at Duke University with Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski (Coach K) on the floor. He had divided the team into two groups with one at either end of the court competing against each other. His legs straddled the center line as if he were Colossus with his head swiveling back and forth as if on a stick. The impression was that he saw everything and be never missed anything. And then when he saw a player make a mistake, he would blow his whistle sharply. The players would immediately stop moving as if they were frozen in place. And then, in peg-leg style, he would hobble across the floor favoring one leg over the other. He was clearly in need of a hip replacement at the time.

I’ve had both of my hips replaced, so I could easily imagine the pain that he was experiencing as he peg-legged it from the center of the court to either end. I suspected that he had decided that surgery would have to wait. The season was just a few weeks away, and given that his team was largely composed of freshman, he could not afford to miss a day. Casey Martin doesn’t blow a whistle, nor does he run a defense practice, but as he climbs out of his cart, deftly working his way to a vantage point where he can see his players from every angle, I’m reminded of the halting walk of Coach K.

There is something else that these two man share in common — an intense desire to win. They settle for nothing less than great. And when you look into their eyes, you can see that there is an intensity that burns from within that is vastly different from the man on the street.

As you might remember, I was scheduled to play a round on Pacific Dunes and another on Old McDonald. The two courses are both spectacular layouts with ocean views. And the weather… I drew two perfect days, defying the odds my friend had laid down. It was sunny and 65 degrees with just a hint of wind. How did I play? Let’s just say that I made a few pars. What I found was that striking the ball well is no guarantee that you will score low on these courses. The green complexes are diabolical. The best advice I can give you is to throw you scorecard away. You’ll enjoy yourself more.

The next morning, I was on an early morning flight back to Minneapolis only to discover that we were experiencing Indian Summer with temperatures 20 degrees warmer than usual. But as Minnesotans, we all know what is waiting for us just around the corner.

I’ll leave you with this thought. After watching Casey Martin and the players on his team play and practice, I’m sure of one thing. And that’s when next year’s NCAA Championship comes around, Casey Martin will have all of his Ducks in a row.

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The Kids Are Alright: Spike in Junior Golf Participation a Good Sign for Game’s Future

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This week, eight 10-player All-Star teams representing regions from across the country will converge upon Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Ariz., to compete in the 6th PGA Junior League Championship.

The teams – New Hampshire (Northeast), California (West), Georgia (Southeast), Ohio (Mideast), Illinois (Midwest), New Jersey (Mid-Atlantic), Arkansas (Mississippi Valley), and Texas (Southwest) – will be divided into two divisions where they will face off in round-robin, 9-hole matches using a two-person, scramble format of play. Teams are captained by PGA/LPGA Professionals.

Since the PGA of America launched PGA Junior League in 2012, participation has skyrocketed from about 1,800 players the first year to a record-setting 42,000 boys and girls age 13 and under participating on 3,400 teams across the country this year.

“Junior golf is a key priority of the PGA of America and we recognize that increasing youth participation in the game is essential to the future of our industry and sport,” said Suzy Whaley, PGA of America Vice President and PGA Director of Instruction at Suzy Whaley Golf in Connecticut.

“PGA Jr. League is a fun and welcoming opportunity for boys and girls of all backgrounds and skill levels to learn, play, and love golf under the expert instruction and guidance of PGA and LPGA Professionals. It’s team-oriented and kids wear numbered jerseys. It’s transforming traditional junior golf and the numbers prove it.”

Whaley believes the team concept and scramble format are major factors in PGA Jr. League’s rapid growth over the last five years. In fact, she says, the program is re-shaping the golf industry’s view of the way junior golf is typically learned and played.

“Other youth sports have been utilizing the team format for years and it’s a natural fit for golf,” said Whaley, who has taken three teams to the Jr. League Championships. “The scramble format provides for a low-pressure environment. We’ve created a team atmosphere that has broad appeal. Parents and kids enjoy being a part of the community that PGA/LPGA Professional Captains create. In this team setting, older, more experienced players mentor the younger, beginner golfers. There’s no pressure on any one player, and it’s great to see kids pull for one another versus the individual focus generally associated with golf.”

“It is a program that creates a family-centered atmosphere that encourages mom, dad, brothers, sisters, and grandparents to become involved, as well. During PGA Jr. League matches, the parents are part of the match keeping score, posting photos on social media and encouraging all players. PGA Jr. League grows lifetime interest in the game across multiple generations.”

Matthew Doyle of the Connecticut team gathers for a photo with team captain, Suzy Whaley during session three for the 2016 PGA jr. League Golf Championship presented by National Rental Car held at Grayhawk Golf Club on November 20, 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona. (Photo by Traci Edwards/PGA of America)

Fourteen-year-old Cullen Laberge from Farmington, Conn., is a student in the Suzy Whaley Golf program and has competed at the PGA Jr. League Championships for Team Connecticut. Laberge has been playing for four years and says his Jr. League experience really sparked his interest in the game and his desire to become a better player and ultimately a golf teacher one day.

“It has taught me so much about golf, while keeping it fun and interesting,” Laberge said. “The thing I enjoy the most is playing competitive golf without the stress that tournament golf can sometimes bring. No matter age or skill level, Jr. League keeps it fun and no matter how a player is playing there is another player to pick them up. That national championship was the best experience of my life. It was like I was playing on the PGA Tour. I loved the amazing competition; those players were good.”

And it’s not just golf’s executives and Jr. League participants who have taken notice of the program’s growth and the ultimate importance that growth represents for the future of the game. PGA and LPGA professionals including Rory McIlroy, Ricky Fowler, Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie have all joined as ambassadors for the program.

“I want to do everything I can to be a positive influence on kids who are interested in the game and serving as an ambassador for PGA Jr. League is a great fit,” said Wie. “There are so many lessons that kids can learn and that adults can reinforce through the game of golf – good sportsmanship, honesty, integrity, work ethic. Golf can help you learn how to react when things don’t go your way which I think is a really important skill to have in life.”

“Golf can definitely mirror life. You can work incredibly hard and still fall short, but how do you bounce back? How do you overcome a mistake or a bad break and still succeed? It’s important for kids to grow up with a good work ethic and the right attitude to face challenges. Golf is a great game to teach those lessons.”

Copyright Picture : Mark Pain / IMG (www.markpain.com)

Wie says the more inclusive and welcoming the golf community in general can be, the better.

“Especially as a young female, I have experienced plenty of times where I did not feel welcome or felt like I had to prove myself more than the guys did,” Wie said. “Golf is a game that should be available to everyone and I think it’s important to make it accessible to kids whether they are a future tour pro or a future 20-handicapper.”

The folks over at the USGA know a thing or two about growing the game and making it more accessible and they should, they’ve been doing it since the association’s founding in 1894.

The inaugural three USGA championships – the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur and U.S. Women’s Amateur in 1895 – did not have age limits, each simply aiming to identify the champion golfer. In 1948, the USGA held the first United States Junior Amateur solely open to players under the age of 18 and just one year later the association conducted the first United States Girls’ Junior Championship.

In addition to helping fund The First Tee, LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, and the Drive, Chip and Putt Championships, the USGA recently introduced its “For the Good of the Game” grant program to promote a more welcoming and accessible game at the local level with millions of dollars offered to local communities to build programs.

“The greatest misperception is accessibility,” says Beth Major, Director of Community Outreach at the USGA. “Two-thirds of all golf courses in America are open to the public. Kids and parents still believe it is a country club sport and we need to change that.”

Founded in 2013 as a joint initiative between the USGA, the Masters Tournament, and the PGA of America, the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship is a free nationwide junior golf competition for boys and girls ages 7-15 aimed at growing the game. Participants who advance through local, sub-regional and regional qualifying earn a place in the National Finals, which is conducted the Sunday before The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.

Drive, Chip and Putt qualifying is offered in all 50 states and participation in the event has increased each year.

“We have a great partnership with our friends at the PGA of America and the Masters Tournament,” Major said. “Our leaders realized that by pooling our resources at the national level while activating at the local level, we could quickly scale the program and get more kids involved.”

“Going into our sixth year, it is amazing to see how far the program has grown and the entry point we’ve created together to keep our youth engaged. We look forward to continuing to evolve the program to welcome more youth to the sport.”

The USGA, in partnership with the LPGA, the Masters Tournament, the PGA of America, and the PGA TOUR, founded The First Tee in 1997 specifically to answer the call for diversity and inclusion. The program has welcomed millions of new players to the game in the past 20 years by focusing not only on teaching golf skills but life and social skills such as etiquette, honesty, respect, confidence and responsibility.

Founded in 1989, the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program is aimed at girls ages 6-17 and has played a critical role in not only welcoming girls and women to the game, but perhaps equally importantly keeping them in the game.

“Statistics continually show us that the social aspects of the game drive girls and women to play golf,” Major said. “That sense of camaraderie and building friends greatly outweighs their need to compete at the entry level. LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, quite simply, has made it fun and cool for girls to play – and play together. And the results are astounding. We have traced more than 100 girls who started in an LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program that played in a USGA championship last year. They have not only introduced the game to girls and young women, they kept them in the game, and that is very exciting and inspiring.”

One company is tackling growth of the game from another angle – the equipment side.

Since its very beginning back in 1997, U.S. Kids Golf has been focused on its mission, “To help kids have fun learning the lifelong game of golf and to encourage family interaction that builds lasting memories.

To that end, the company began developing youth clubs starting out with just three sizes and one product line initially.

“Over time, through watching youth golfers, we came to realize that we were not serving them as well as we would like,” said Dan Van Horn, U.S. Kids Golf founder. “Looking at how the best players in the world – LPGA and PGA Tour – are fit for clubs, we discovered the proportion of their drive length to height was from 60-70 percent. From that we created what we term the ‘2/3 solution.’ Simply put, for every 3 inches a player grows, we offer a set that has a driver that is 2 inches longer.”

Importantly, it is not just the length of the clubs that increase as the player grows but also the overall club weight, grip size and shaft stiffness. At the same time, the loft on woods decreases providing additional distance.

“One of the key benefits of correctly fit clubs that are lightweight is the ability for players to learn a correct and powerful swing at a young age,” Van Horn said. “Clubs that are too long and/or heavy slows the golf swing itself and creates bad habits that are difficult to change later in life.”

Beyond the importance of young golfers needing properly fit equipment, Van Horn believes strongly in the need for juniors to compete in tournament play to facilitate aspirational goals and to measure progress. Going hand in hand with this is proper instruction from coaches who understand how young players learn and develop.

“After a few years of producing equipment, we realized more needed to be done to serve our market so we formed a nonprofit foundation,” Van Horn said. “Immediately we created our World Championship in 2000 so that young golfers would have an aspirational goal, much like the Little League World Series is to baseball players. We also realized that golf professionals and coaches lacked an organized incentive-based learning program to truly engage players in the game so we created one that same year.”

A longtime proponent of having players play from appropriate yardages, U.S. Kids Golf developed the Longleaf Tee System which uses a mathematical formula to “scale” any golf course for up to eight different tee locations per hole so all players have options based upon how far they carry the ball with a driver. Yardages start at 3,200 yards for 18 holes and increase up to Tour distances of 7,400 yards.

“What we need is a focus by all golf facilities and coaches to provide quality, enjoyable experiences to our youth,” Van Horn said. “This means incorporating game-based learning with a measurable, learning program so that players and their parents know how they are progressing. And, of course, shorter tees need to be available so we can get kids on a ‘field’ that fits them like other sports. There’s no question it can be done.”

The National Golf Foundation’s annual report for 2016 revealed that participation in junior golf programs remained steady at 2.9 million likely due in part to the success of the programs mentioned above and others just like them. Importantly, the number of female junior golfers has increased to a third of all participants and the number of non-Caucasion players has risen to a quarter, four times what it was a couple of decades ago.

While time will ultimately judge whether these programs and offerings serve not only to retain current players but continue to attract new ones, the state of junior golf in the country appears strong and on the right track for now. 

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