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AimPoint’s Express Route to the Top: A Q&A with Founder Mark Sweeney

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Aimpoint Founder Mark Sweeney (right) with Stacy Lewis.

Turn on CBS for Sunday’s telecast and you’re bound to see an animated graphic of a ball breaking towards the hole. This graphic is part of a bigger simulator that can predict how much a golf ball will break from a golfer’s specific position. And more importantly, it shows where a golfer must aim to make that putt.

That simulator is known as AimPoint and was created in 2004 by a curious amateur golfer with a talent for developing applications, Mark Sweeney. Sweeney is now the putting instructor for many professional golfers, including Adam Scott, the No. 2-ranked golfer in the Official World Golf Rankings and Stacy Lewis, who is No. 1 in the Women’s World Golf Rankings.

Sweeney recently developed a new system based on original fundamentals that went into the TV simulator, with more practicality and ease of use. Called AimPoint Express, it allows for quick and accurate reads from anywhere on any green. I had the opportunity to speak with Mark recently about his career, the Express Read, and the future.

BF: You’ve been called one of the top innovators in the game of golf today. Tell us about your background prior to founding AimPoint in 2007, and what led to you fusing golf and science in this unique way?

MS: I have background in high tech really. I worked in finance, but did a lot of software development. I worked at Hewlett Packard for five years, dealing with technology applications. I had played golf as an amateur, and because I had a background in software development I tried to apply it to putting. I started off really for fun, trying to see if I could write some software to predict break. The research at the time was all dealing with theoretical surfaces, where if you had a surface in the shape of a parabola, how would the ball break? But none of it was done on an actual putting green, and that’s where I tried to attack the problem.

BF: For those who are unfamiliar with your original system, AimPoint, tell us a bit about how it works or the theory behind it.

MS: AimPoint was originally designed as a computer program to figure out how to putt a ball on a green. I originally created a Palm Pilot application in 2004 where if you knew where the ball was and where the hole was, you could figure out how the ball would the ball break. The Palm Pilot platform had all sorts of issues, as they weren’t connected to the internet and the screens were unreadable in the sun, so I left that alone and pretty quickly moved to TV.

It caught CBS’s attention pretty early, and when it launched in 2005 I focused most of my attention on that. I didn’t get a contract with Golf Channel to go on the air until 2007. Between the time we worked with CBS and Golf Channel putting it on air, we slowly grew and I moved more into teaching. It has gotten bigger and bigger until just the last few years it has really taken off.

BF: When did you begin to see the Tour pick up your system, and how was the initial reception?

Lewis

MS: It’s interesting, because the first person to pick it up on the PGA Tour was Scott McCarron, at least four years ago. His putting stats improved dramatically. He went from about 190th in putting to top 10 within the first six months or so.

He stayed top 10 for the next three years straight, and was actually first the last year he played full time before he got injured. He had tremendous success, and a number of players started to take a look at it. It didn’t get dramatic acceptance on Tour; I think it was perceived as too technical. And even though people had done very well with it, I didn’t get as many players as I had hoped to. On the LPGA, Stacy Lewis was the first player to use it. She won her first major, and in her second year using it she won four more times. So I got quicker acceptance on the LPGA Tour because Stacy did so well quickly.

BF: Would you say that part of the recent growth of AimPoint can be correlated to the general trend of approaching the game in a much more technical manner?

MS: A little bit, but people are still very reluctant to apply a technical approach to their putting, even now. The original reads, including the midpoint read and AimChart … even though they were super accurate reads on paper they took some time to learn and get good at. Lately, the Express system, well since December, has gained much more acceptance as its less technical.

The original read was based on three variables: the length of the putt, the slope and the angle you were putting at. If you had all of those three, you would get what we call a “perfect read.” The problem was that for many players that was too many moving parts and I think that hurt the acceptance overall on Tour. With the Express system, you can basically get the same read with only one variable. So it’s really just a side slope number and you don’t have to worry about the other stuff. Players feel it is more natural and quicker. You can put it in play the same day whereas with the Midpoint read, it took a few months to get really comfortable with it. With the Express read, you can learn and go out to play 10 minutes later and have a pretty good understanding of how it works.

BF: So, you’d say that the Express Read system came as a way of simplifying the original method?

MS: Yeah, exactly. It’s a simplified method of Midpoint, with essentially the same accuracy. I’d say it’s 95 percent as accurate as Midpoint. Technically you give up a bit of accuracy on paper, but in reality you will make more putts because it is an easier read with fewer moving parts. On paper, you give up a bit of accuracy from let’s say 20 feet, but in reality we see people making more [putts] as it is easier and feels more natural.

[With Express Read] you’re simply putting a value on how much side slope there is. If you know how much the ball is tilted sideways, it becomes fairly straightforward to get an accurate read.

BF: We’ve almost grown accustomed to seeing Adam Scott standing behind his ball with various fingers out.  What’s going on there?

Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial - Final Round

MS: Holding the fingers out is the Express method. Once you put a value on the side slope, you get a visual picture of how the ball breaks. So when the player holds their finger up, its showing them where to start the ball and how much the ball will break.

BF: How has the reception on Tour been with Express?

MS: There were a lot of players who knew about AimPoint years ago, but saw it as too technical. Now we see them putting Express into play quickly, even the next day. It’s kind of a shocking thing for Tour players to put something into play so quickly, as usually they like to experiment for a while before putting something into competition.

BF: Did you ever imagine that a day would come when the top-ranked male and female golfers in the world would be using AimPoint?

MS: No [laughs]. All of it hit me about a month before it happened. Obviously we were very excited about Stacy because Stacy was the No. 1-ranked women’s golfer in the world a year and a half ago, lost it, and then got it back. It was really great to see Adam doing it as well. Both of them use it very well. They use it the way it is meant to be used. It is very exciting for us, because we AimPoint instructors know how good the read is when you use it the way you’re supposed to use it. To see players like them use it and putt better with it, statistically, it’s great to watch.

BF: Could you tell us a bit about your relationship with them and what you’re working on with their individual games?

MS: They both strike the ball on line very well. It was a little bit easier to get them using the system quicker, as once you gave them the read they would roll the ball there. Versus the majority of players, if you give them a read, they won’t roll the ball on that spot, they’re missing their line by a degree left or right. So [for amateurs], you also have to patch that hole; its not just the read, but you have to hit the line and speed. But with Stacy and Adam, it’s neat to watch because they are so good at starting it on a line. You say “don’t hit it here, hit it there,” and then they hit it there. They both have had quick success with it because of that. Most of the hard work was done in the beginning, and when I see them now, its mostly just fine tuning. I see Stacy three or four times a year at the most and it’s just really little tweaks here and there.

BF: Today’s average golfer may not have the time or funds to be constantly working on his or her game, but still wants to get better. Does AimPoint Express help this amateur? And if so, how?

MS: One of the ideas that got me into doing the Express read was because I was doing a charity event. I was with a typical average golfer, one who played six to ten times a year. We were teaching him how to use the original system, the Midpoint read, and he missed an 18 foot putt by about 2 inches. When you’re used to working with professional golfers, you miss by two inches and you immediately try to figure out why that happened. When this guy missed his putt, he basically said “I don’t care if I missed an 18 foot putt by 2 inches, that’s good enough for me.” I thought, wow, I’m so used to trying to get every half inch of accuracy out of a stroke whereas 95 percent of golfers in the world don’t care if they miss that putt; hitting it to 2 inches is a great putt. It was probably a week after that that we came up with the Express Method.

The thing about Express is that it works better than we thought it would. I thought it would be a way to get really close really fast.  What we found was that it was almost as accurate as the original chart read. It was surprising that Tour players were learning it, saying we like this, and using it immediately. It started off as an adaptation for amateur and junior golfers, to get them very close with very little training, but for the same reason that the amateurs liked it so do the Tour players.


Sweeney (on left with white/black hat) leading a seminar on AimPoint Express.

BF: One of the interesting things I find about Express is it’s universality among the full spectrum of skill levels. Essentially, a basics lesson for a Tour player is the same as a bogey golfer?

MS: If I teach a brand new golfer or a tour player, I teach the exact same read to them both. The only difference is with a Tour player you are also spending a bit more time focusing on the specifics of starting exactly on line and training that, whereas with an amateur they can get 90 percent of it within the first hour. The amateur knows he is missing his line, but he isn’t as concerned. If he makes a good putt from 15-to-20 feet, he is happy. But with a Tour player, as I said, if they miss by a degree we try to tweak that to get a little more accuracy in hitting the line. What I teach a 36 handicapper and Stacy is exactly the same.

BF: We’ve seen the progression from AimPoint to AimPoint Express. What do you see as the next progression?

MS: Well, it’s hard, because I didn’t see the Express method happening until the day it happened. We are always trying to improve our method and make it more simpler to common golfers.  I don’t know if there is a way to simplify it any more; I think we’ve maxed that out. So I think the next step is putting all the pieces together for putting. Not just green reading, but understanding start line and speed control, because only 3-to-5 percent of golfers start the ball where they want to start the ball. To be able to help them with that is the next piece of the puzzle.

BF: In the future do you see your technology being applied to areas outside of putting?

MS: I don’t understand the full swing well enough to go into that area, but we certainly use it on chipping and pitch shots.  All short game shots, any ball that hits the green, we do apply it for that. As of now, I don’t have any plans of going into other zones in golf.  Believe it or not, I am playing around with applying it to baseball. I have a pitching simulator where we see that the physics behind ball movement is very similar to golf, in a way.

The idea is understanding the cause and effect; why the ball moves how it does.  Once we understand that, we can apply that to help people perform better.  The key to it is making it practical, because there are lots scientists and researchers who do very elaborate mathematics, but their results are not practical to apply in the field.

BF: What type of progression do you see from a business/marketing perspective? Happy with the Tour being the main method of advertising, or other plans?

MS: From a marketing perspective, there’s more demand for AimPoint then there ever has been. I’m teaching way more than I ever have, and most of my instructors say the same. I think it’s really caught on with the public, especially with people seeing Stacy and other Tour Players doing it on TV.  It has all happened so quickly with AimPoint becoming popular over the past few months that I really haven’t thought of how to market it to more people yet. I would like to, I just don’t quite know how yet.

BF: Last question. How can our readers learn to putt like Adam Scott and Stacy Lewis and pick up AimPoint Express?

MS: Right now, the best way to do it is to go to my website and find one of my authorized instructors. I have about 175 worldwide, with the majority (100+) in the United States. At some point, I plan to release a book as well; I’ve had it about 90 percent finished for four years now. My goal is to get that out within the next year and it will provide a different avenue to learning.

BF: Thanks for your time, Mark.

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Brody has proudly been with GolfWRX since July 2012. He is a full time student, but enjoys getting around to writing whenever he has the chance. His interests include Tour coverage, equipment reviews, as well as interviewing figures from within the golf world. Most recently, he spoke with the founder of AimPoint Technologies and coach of Adam Scott and Stacy Lewis, Mark Sweeney.

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9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Joe

    Aug 19, 2014 at 11:20 am

    iPhone users already have a level on their phone, it’s just hidden. No need to download another app.

    http://emgn.com/entertainment/21-things-you-didnt-know-your-iphone-can-do-10-is-so-cool/9/

  2. Nick

    Aug 11, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    I have no knowledge of the express method, but took the old “technical” system and must admit, for all its complexity, it really helped. Even if you don’t apply the whole system, a better understanding of the factors and more systematic approach to reading greens will improve your putting very quickly than the “guess and hope” system used by many amateurs.

  3. Bob

    Aug 8, 2014 at 7:41 pm

    I took the Midpoint class from Mark earlier this year in SoCal, and while I really like the “more technical” system, I believe the Express read/measure/execute approach is a fantastic real world and workable system. This is the real deal! Thanks Mark!

    • Brian

      Aug 15, 2014 at 11:19 pm

      A friend and I just took the Express class tonight and are very pleased with the results.

  4. Brian

    Aug 8, 2014 at 12:02 am

    As a player on the Golf Channel Am Tour, I would enjoy seeing Aimpoint offer classes at our National Chapionship in September. The Aimpoint Express sounds like it would be a great addition to the GC Am Tour and I believe there would be many players that would utilize their services.

  5. Vadim

    Aug 8, 2014 at 12:01 am

    Aim point is the best thing ever for my putting. I have a question though, i know you supposed to add a finger for downhill putts but what about uphill? do i subtract a finger?

  6. Rob

    Aug 7, 2014 at 8:28 pm

    Numerous friends have asked how I improved my putting virtually overnight and I’m always glad to share my Aimpoint secret. It’s simple and it works.

  7. Deron

    Aug 7, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    I’ve been using AimPoint Express for about a month and have never putted better. It’s not an exact science, of course and I’m not out there draining everything, but I feel like most every putt inside of 25 feet or so has a chance. A lot of times on really long putts I had just guessed where to aim and now I’ve got a very good idea where to aim and it’s helped a lot. 10 foot and in, I’m extremely confident; if I can get the speed correct, the ball is going in.

  8. John

    Aug 7, 2014 at 2:38 pm

    AimPoint has helped me significantly since I picked it up. Good article!

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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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