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Opinion & Analysis

Youth player development: The lifeblood of the golf industry

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When people hear the phrase “junior golf,” they tend to think of things like group clinics, summer camps, or perhaps even an annual father-son event. These types of things come to mind: the images of kids strung across a driving range, whacking away and free-wheeling at golf balls, with little thought given to aim or technique, is the likely vision one sees. For some, the idea of a glorified babysitting service, with golf clubs, may come to mind…something offered at the club so mom and dad can enjoy a beverage or two.

In my mind, these stereotypical ideas of what “junior golf” is are very sad ways of characterizing programming for our youth. What’s even worse, is the fact that many golf professionals buy into these stereotypes and provide “junior golf” programming in such a manor.

From this point on, for the sake of this discussion, let’s stop using the term “junior golf.” That phrase alone may be so ingrained in the minds of many, that images as what was mentioned above can’t help but come to mind. I think the phrase, “youth player development” sounds much, much better. In the big picture, that is what we, the PGA Golf Professionals, as keepers of the game, should be doing…developing players. In this case, the development of players has a focus on the youth within our communities.

The impact that “youth player development” has on our game overall cannot be understated. It is the gateway to the long-term health of the golf industry. It has been proven that a positive, fun and productive introduction to golf leads to lifelong golfers. For the gatekeepers of the game, the PGA Professionals, that is the mission. We must continue to develop players in order for courses to continue to operate. It’s a very simple fact of economics, you must create a demand for a product or service in order for your business to survive.

So, if a structured, positive and fun introduction of golf to kids is almost proven to create lifelong golfers, why is it sadly still seen as a “nice to do” or “feel good” thing by many? The answer, simply, is that many owners and operators get stuck in the instant…the now…and the quick buck. The idea of the “long play” and creating long-term customers is not something that many want to invest resources in. After all, it’s not, at least in their mind, something that will show the results desired in a timeframe that is conducive to creating revenue in the now. This mode of thinking is counterproductive in many ways and its what’s driving many clubs to have to close the doors for good at their facilities.

Creating youth programming leads to the opportunity to capture an even broader audience. Moms, dads, grandma, grandpa, little sis, or big brother. Even the non-golfing friends of kids that do play the game can now be captured as well…I’ll explain this in a bit. Getting results from opportunities like these is indeed something that can produce revenue in the short term…if you structure things the right way and have “Youth Player Development” at the core. Before I explain, I must define a few things.

What “youth player development” is NOT

  • One focused on creating single-digit, competitive youth golfers (is it happens, that’s great!)
  • One that is seen in a mentality as being a “nice to have” or “Babysitting Service”
  • One created by or solely ran by your new, young professionals (They should be involved, but these initiatives need to be led by senior golf staff)
  • One with a PGA Junior League program that is merely about winning
  • One with programming in place, but has an atmosphere that is not fun, inclusive or positive

What “youth player development” IS

  • One creating life-long golfers…at any level!
  • One that has a staff that truly cares about a positive, inclusive environment
  • One that sees the Head Golf Professional, Director of Golf, and other higher profile Professional’s involved
  • One that has a PGA Junior League program that has a good balance of beginner, intermediate and advanced players
  • One that is Fun, Fun, Fun, Inclusive, Inclusive, Inclusive, Positive, Positive, Positive

With the before mentioned in mind, here is how you create short term revenue, hand-in-hand, with long-term, youth player development programming.

Establish and fully embrace PGA of America, and other Allied Association lead programming. Register as a coach and establish a PGA Junior League team (or two), host a Drive, Chip and Putt local or regional qualifier, and start a Get Golf Ready Program focused on youth. In addition, create programming similar to our Little Linksters™ program which focuses on ages 3-8. All of this becomes your base.

As step one evolves, introduce programming that runs in conjunction with your “youth player development” base programs. You will find that parents, grandparents and siblings will be hanging around the club while these base programs are going on. Establish programming for those “hanging out” that are conducted during the same time frame as your base youth programs. 30-minute couples’ clinics, women’s clinics, specialty clinics such as short game, driver, etc. and market these to the folks that are waiting for their kiddos in your youth programs.

Not everyone plays golf, but everyone eats! Creating special menus or specials for the families of the kids taking part in your base youth player development programming is a no-brainier, but rarely is seen. You have a captured audience right there for the taking. Show your facility off and be proud. Creating an atmosphere that makes these families feel welcome and special pays major dividends.

Create other specials for the families of your “youth player development” programming such as range bucket punch cards, golf shop coupons, or reduced round rates for a parent and child…or better yet, a family rate for two kids and two adults.

The beautiful thing about PGA Junior League is that it is a team-based program, something unique to a game that is, for the most part, a singular sport. This simple fact is something that can bring in non-golf youth athletes that may want to share an activity with a golfing friend. I have seen this first hand, and, in a few cases, I’ve seen kids move toward golf in place of other sports they played.

The real secret sauce that you need to put on top of all the above-mentioned ingredients is this…keep things economical, inclusive, fun and inviting. Creating a positive atmosphere will only make folks want to stay longer and come by more often.

As an industry, we need to think more progressively and seek opportunities for growth in places we may have never looked before. Take a page out of the book of Topgolf. They have recognized that people want to be entertained and have fun. Golf has a great deal of tradition that makes it the special game that it is. However, being stuck in our ways, wearing blinders and not thinking outside the box is detrimental to the health of our game. Keeping the youth at the forefront and creating a community around them at your club could be the game changer needed at your club. For those that do not work in the industry but are consumers of golf, I encourage you to share these thoughts with management at your club…especially if you’ve noticed things getting a little stale and crusty around the edges.

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Brendon is a PGA Golf Professional in Central Florida. He is the passion behind Little Linksters, LLC, the Little Linksters Association for Junior Golf Development (501c3) and the Little Linksters Golf Academy, now at Wekiva Golf Club in Longwood, FL. Born and raised in the small upstate New York town of Norwich, Brendon is the oldest of three and turned 43 in May of 2018. He is married to his wife of almost 19 years, Melisa and they are the parents to a beautiful daughter who was born in March of 2005 and a son who was born in August 2009. He began his golfing life when he was about 12 years old at the Riverbend Golf Club in New Berlin, N.Y. After a few years at Riverbend his father joined the Canasawacta Country Club in their hometown of Norwich, N.Y and Brendon began playing golf as much as he possibly could. He joined the boy’s varsity golf team at Norwich High School his freshman year and played all four years during high school, however, a broken hip and foot injury sidelined him for a bulk of that time. He returned to full strength his Senior year and played anywhere from the 4th to 1st spot on the very strong team. He finished 10th in the Conference Championship, shooting an 80 on a cold and blustery late fall day. When he was 15, Brendon started working in the proshop at the Canasawacta Country Club. It was his first job and it was the start of his life in the golf business. After his high school graduation, Brendon attended the State University of New York @ Delhi and majored in Golf Course Operations. While at Delhi he was a member of the men’s golf team. Upon graduation from SUNY Delhi, he moved to the central Florida area to officially begin his career in the golf business. Brendon has been working in the golf business for twenty-five plus years and is considered by his peers in the industry as one of the true leaders in the junior golf and growth of the game arena. After a successful run of 13 years at the Winter Park Country Club, the last 5 of those years as the GM & Head Professional, Brendon turned his attention toward growing the game of golf for kids of all ages but with a focus on children ages 3 to 10 years old. Brendon founded the Little Linksters Golf Academy at Metrowest Golf Club in August of 2011. The Academy later moved to Wekiva Golf Club in January of 2014. Elliott now serves in an ownership and manager role with the Academy while he works on other projects including his 501c3 nonprofit, The Little Linksters Association for Junior Golf Development. In January of 2013, Elliott became a PGA Staff Professional at the Golf Academy of America in Apopka, FL. In December 2018, after 44 years in business, the Golf Academy of America closed its doors for good. Elliott is the 2017 PGA National Youth Player Development Award winner. He is also a 2010, 2011 & 2012 US Kids Golf Top 50 Kids Teacher, a 2013 US Kids Golf Master Kids Teacher, a 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 & 2016 Top 50 Growth of the Game Instructor as named by the Golf Range Association of America, a 2017 & 2018 Elite Status Top 50 Growth of the Game Instructor as named by the GRAA, the 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 ECC Junior Golf Leader, the 2013, 2014 & 2017 ECC Horton Smith award winner, and the 2011, 2012, 2013 & 2014 NFPGA Junior Golf Leader award winner. He was a finalist for the PGA’s National Junior Leader award in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016 before winning the prestigious award in 2017. In January 2014, Little Linksters was named the 2013 ING (International Network of Golf) Player Development Award winner. Elliott has appeared in or been a contributor for numerous golf media articles with publications such as Golf Business Magazine and PGA Magazine as well as PGA.com and PGAMagazine.com. His contributions have included topics ranging from Social Media to Junior Golf. Elliott was a guest on the Golf Channels Morning Drive in April of 2013 along with Dottie Pepper and Alan Wronowski. The threesome spoke on many different junior golf initiatives that are available to children of all ages. Elliott also appeared on Morning Drive in October of 2016 as part of Junior Golf Week as well as in October of 2017 and January of 2018. Elliott is a sought-out speaker on Junior Golf with a focus on children ages 8 and under. He spoke at the 2012 Proponent Group Annual Conference in October of 2012 which was held at Cog Hill Golf Club near Chicago. The event was held in conjunction with the 2012 Ryder Cup. Elliott spoke at the 2013 Southeastern Junior Golf Summit at Druid Hills Golf Club in Atlanta on November 4, 2013. He was also a presenter at the 2014 PGA Youth & Family Golf Summit held during the week of the 2014 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, FL and Little Linksters G.O.A.L.S. program was featured at the 2016 PGA Youth & Family Golf Summit, also in Orlando. Elliott served in the role of Secretary, Vice President, President and the Honorary President of the East Central Chapter of the NFPGA Section from 2009-2016. He was also a NFPGA Section Board member from 2009-2015. He has also served as Chairman of the ECC Junior Golf Committee as well as the Co-Chair of the NFPGA Junior Golf Committee. Brendon was also a member of the PGA of America’s 2012-2014 National Youth Player Development Committee and the 2010-2012 & 2012-2014 Public Relations & Communications Committee. He is currently a member of the 2018-2019 PGA National Awards Committee. With the closing of the GAA, Brendon will now focus his full time once again on the Little Linksters Golf Academy, Little Linksters, LLC and the Little Linksters Association for Junior Golf Development (501c3). Brendon is available for Private Coaching through his long-range coaching packages of 6, 9 or 12 months.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. N

    Apr 6, 2019 at 8:47 pm

    Yeah. It’s hard to try to be the Little League of Golf.
    Especially with the varied levels of wealth and private country clubs to street level Munis that don’t ever coincide.
    With Little League they get to wear cool team uniforms and get a feeling of teamwork and camaraderie and community.
    In golf, no matter how much you bring them all together, the kid is by him/herself and her parents most likely.
    Tough to broach the divides and individuality.

  2. Bill

    Apr 5, 2019 at 10:05 pm

    You forgot one very important program. The First Tee. The First Tee is unique among all youth golf development programs. As our motto says, its more than a game. Most important in the first tee is the life skills curriculum experience and certifications. Also, many first tee chapters also incorporate pga Jr. League and lpga girls golf. The first tee is also a pga partner. Take your blinders off.

    • David Simmons

      Apr 6, 2019 at 7:30 pm

      Great read! The key is to make it fun and not feel like a chore. 80% of our instructors use video to make it fun and also send content to the parents which they share socially leading to free advertising for academies. FUN FUN FUN and we will keep them coming back!

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Opinion & Analysis

A conversation with a Drive, Chip and Putt national finalist

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I’ve been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend all of the Drive, Chip and Putt National Finals at Augusta National since the inception of this amazing initiative. I’ve also been extremely lucky to have attended the Masters each of the past 10 years that I have been a PGA member. Each year, I’m still like a kid on Christmas morning when I walk through the gates at Augusta National, but nothing compares to my first trip in 2010. I was in absolute awe. For anyone that’s been, you can surely agree that Augusta National and the Masters Tournament is pure perfection.

The past few years at DCP finals, I couldn’t help but notice the looks of sheer excitement on the faces of the young competitors as well as their parents. That led me to reaching out to one of this year’s competitors, Briel Royce. A Central Florida native, Briel finished second overall in the 7-8-year-old girls division. She is a young lady that I know, albeit, not all too well, that competes in some of my youth golf organization’s Tour series in Florida. I spoke to Briel’s mom at Augusta and then reached out to the family after their return to the Orlando area to get a better idea of their DCP and Augusta National experience…

So how cool was it driving Down Magnolia Lane?

Briel: “Driving down Magnolia Lane was awesome.  Usually, you do not get to experience the scenic ride unless you are a tour player or a member. Everyone got extremely quiet upon entry. There were tons of security along our slow ride. Seeing the beautiful trees and the Masters Flag at Founder’s Circle in the distance was surreal. Having earned the right and opportunity to drive down this prestigious lane was breathtaking. I would love to do it again someday.”

What was the coolest part of your time at Drive, Chip and Putt at Augusta National?

Briel: “Everything was cool about the DCP. Not too often do you see people taking walks in the morning with green jackets on. We were not treated like kids. We were treated like tour players, like we were members at Augusta. The icing on the cake was when they took us to the practice green and we were putting alongside Zach Johnson and Charl Schwartzel. Everyone was confused when we first got there because we weren’t certain we should be putting on the same green around the pros. Again, we were treated like we were tour players. Where else would I be able to do this? Nowhere other than DCP at Augusta. One of my favorite reflections is having Bubba Watson watch us chip and congratulating each of us for our efforts. He did not need to do that. He took time out of practicing for a very important week in his career to support the DCP players. I think his actions show what the game of golf is about: the sportsmanship, the camaraderie, and support.”

How did you prepare for the finals?

Briel: “I prepared just like I did for every other tournament, practicing distance control, etc. But to be honest, you really can’t practice for this experience. The greens are like no other. The balls roll like they are on conveyor belts. I didn’t practice being in front of so many cameras, Bubba Watson, Condeleeza Rice as well as many other folks wearing green jackets. You need to practice playing under extreme pressure and scrutiny. When it is game time, you need to just do your thing and concentrate; have tunnel vision just like the ride down Magnolia Lane.”

What tour pros did you get to meet and talk to?

Briel: “WOW! I spoke to so many tour pros while I was there. I spoke to Keegan Bradley, Annika Sorenstam, Nancy Lopez, Zach Johnson, Mark O’Meara, Gary Player and Patrick Reed. I also met up with the U.S. Woman’s Amateur Champion, Jennifer Kupcho, and 14-year-old baller Alexa Pano. I’m still in awe!”

 

How fast were those greens?

Briel: “Those greens were lightning quick. The balls rolled like they were on a conveyor belt; you didn’t know when to expect them to stop. Had I practiced these speeds a little more, I would have putted the 30-foot like a 15-foot and the 15-foot like a 6-foot putt.”

I also wanted to ask Briel’s parents a few questions in order to get a better idea from the standpoint of the mom and dad, on what an increasable experience this must have been.

So how cool was it driving up Magnolia Lane for you guys?

Mom and Dad: “Going down Magnolia Lane was a dream come true and we wouldn’t have EVER been able to do it without Briel’s accomplishment. Driving down was so peaceful; the way the trees are shaped like a tunnel and at the end of that tunnel, you see the Masters Flag and Founder’s Circle. Just thinking about all the legends, presidents, influential people driving down that road and we were doing the same thing was extraordinary. We appreciated how slow the driver took to get us down the lane for us to take it all in. A lot of tears. It was heavenly.”

What was the coolest part during your time at Drive, Chip and Putt and Augusta National?

Mom and Dad“The coolest part was seeing 9-year-old Briel compete at Augusta National! Seeing the whole set up and everything that goes into making this event what it is, we have no words. They made these kids feel like they were royalty. We are so truly blessed, thankful, and grateful for everything that was provided to Briel to make this a truly awesome experience. We don’t want to share too much as it needs to be a surprise to anyone else that’s reading this that may make it there.”

How impactful do you feel this initiative is to golf in general?

Mom and Dad: “You can’t possibly make any bigger impact on golf than to let golf’s future attend the best golf course and the coolest event, Drive, Chip and Putt at none other Augusta National during Masters week. The day after the event, we had a handful of people walk up to Briel to tell her that she was an inspiration to their older daughters who now want to play golf. They even requested a picture with Briel; how cool! This initiative is definately, without question, growing the game.”

It goes without saying that you were incredibly proud of your daughter but what may have surprised you most on how she handled this awesome experience?

Mom and Dad: “We are so incredibly proud of Briel! She handled this challenging and overwhelming experience very well for only being 9 years old. She was cool, calm and collected the whole time. The atmosphere at Drive, Chip and Putt can chew you up if you let it, but she didn’t let all of the distractions get to her, she embraced them.  Out of all the competitions she participated in to earn her invitation to Augusta, we truly feel she treated this whole experience like she was not at a competition but a birthday party where she was having a blast. She made many new golf friends and we met amazing golf families we anticipate spending more time with in the future. You don’t get to go to many parties where Bubba Watson is hanging out with you like he’s your best friend.”

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Podcasts

The 19th Hole (Ep 76): Rees Jones on how Tiger won at Augusta and will win at Bethpage!

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The Open Doctor Rees Jones talks with host Michael Williams about the key holes that shaped Tiger’s win in Augusta and his chances for victory at Bethpage Black in the PGA Championship. Also features John Farrell of Sea Pines Resort (host of this week’s RBC Heritage Classic) and Ed Brown of Clear Sports.

Check out the full podcast on SoundCloud below, or click here to listen on iTunes or here to listen on Spotify.

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Opinion & Analysis

Municipal golf matters. Here’s why

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With another golf season upon us, it’s the time for many to consider the options for how and where they plan to play their golf this season. A good number of golfers would have already started paying dues towards their club memberships, some are waiting to buy a pack of prepaid passes for their local course, and like many, I’m eagerly awaiting the opening of my local municipal golf course — my muni.

Growing up, my friends and I were what you would call course rats: kids who would be there when the sun came up and there as the sun went down. Spending hours on the range often picking our own balls to avoid paying for another bucket — since that meant an extra burger after practice. It was the best “babysitter” our parents could have asked for — endless hours spent outside day after day and for the low price of just $350 for the season — plus about $5 a day for that burger I was talking about. We all ended up being pretty decent players without much instruction, based on the simple truth that we were given the opportunity to play as much as we wanted, and we were always trying to beat each other — we learned to play golf, not “golf swing.”

Living outside of the city in a smaller town, this was a “mom and pop” course that is still around today and busy, but I often wonder now as an adult if other kids that loved golf got to share in the same experience. Looking back, I don’t think I could have gotten a better education in being polite, responsible, honest, and confident — I guess this was The First Tee before The First Tee. The memories from those summers are some of the fondest I have from growing up, and with so many young families living in cities, along with the high cost of organized sports, and the closing of golf courses, municipal golf is one of the last places where this type of opportunity is available to juniors and adults alike at an affordable price.

Municipal golf has been around for a LONG time, and in this day and age it has, for some cities, become a lightning rod for budget cuts along with concerns about tax dollars being spent to fund an “elite” sport. The issue I have is cities spend a huge amount of money to help subsidize other sports fields and recreation facilities including swimming pools, ice ricks, soccer and baseball fields yet none of these sports have the “elite” tag attached to them like golf — with a young family I utilize most of these facilities too. This could end up sounding like a blasphemous statement from a Canadian, but hockey, for example, has become a much more elite and expensive sport as far as access and barrier to entry, including equipment, yet a lot of (non-hockey playing) people would chain themselves to an arena to prevent it from closing its doors.

I’m not here to argue the merits of a city budget, but I am fully aware of the perception many people have about golf. Recently, speaking to one of the golf professionals at a city-owned course near me, he told me they are one of the few city recreational facilities that actually turns a profit thanks to high traffic the course sees, along with efficient use of the clubhouse facilities for events during the season, and in the offseason.

What I love about “muni” golf is that it really is the course for the people. St Andrews in Scotland, for example, is by definition a “muni” public golf course. The course and the “R & A Club” are separate entities, and if you can show a handicap card (and can get a tee time), you can play one of the many courses located in the town.

The munis I play the most because of proximity are Kings Forest Golf Course and Chedoke Civic Golf Courses in the city of Hamilton. The Chedoke courses are in no way a “Championship Test” heck, the shorter Martin Course tops out at just over a whooping 5,700 yards ( that’s a VERY generous number based of the tees actually used), but like St. Andrews it’s home to more than just golfers. Early morning and late afternoon you will find people strolling the paths, walking their dogs and just enjoying the green space — something that as cities continue to grow will be needed even more. It’s not closed on Sundays and doesn’t become a park like St Andrews, but even during winter you will still find dog walkers, cross country skiers, and people sledding down hills. That seems pretty multipurpose if you ask me.

As much as I pick on, and use my local Chedoke as my example, I do it out of love, like a little brother. The Martin course is a Stanley Thompson design with a bunch of very cool holes build into the Niagara Escarpment. It’s a ton of fun to play.

What makes muni golf accessible for so many players from juniors to seniors and everyone in between is the affordability. Sure the conditions might leave something to be desired on a day-to-day basis, but it’s understandable when you have a course staff of 5-6 versus more than a dozen like at high-end facilities. At the end of the day, it’s 18 tees with 18 greens and the company you are with that makes a round of golf, not the height of the fairways or rough or the occasional bunker in need of a good raking.

Locally, a junior membership is right around $500 bucks and that gets you unlimited golf with no tee time restrictions. It’s a pretty nice deal if you ask me. What makes golf different from other individual activities and team sports (something I would like to note I was very active in as a younger person) is that it can be played at any time, and you can easily be pair up with three other random people to just play the game together regardless of gender, age, or skill. It’s often those rounds that are the most fun. No scheduled practice and “game days” like other sports. That means seven days a week access, not just a few hours here and there like many other organized sports.

If we look at the bigger picture and data from the National Golf Foundation (2017), there are just over 11,000 PUBLIC golf facilities in the United States. The average price paid for an 18 hole round of golf was only $34 at these public facilities, which sounds to me like a very reasonable cost. If the “average” golfer plays 10 times a year, that’s only $340 (yeah, I know I’m good at math) and with the buyers’ market in the used equipment space, even if you need a full set up of clubs to get started it can easily be had for less than $400, and you can have those clubs for a long time. A true recreational player will have just as much fun with a 580XD, and 3-PW set of Ping Eye 2s, as they would with a shiny new set of clubs.

Whats even more interesting is there are recent examples of municipal/small, privately-owned golf courses making big comebacks thanks to passionate individuals and cities willing to understand the value a course really has.

The best two are Goat Hill Park and the Winter Park 9 – I’ll let Andy Johnson from The Fried Egg give you the rundown: The Fried Egg Profiles Winter Park. Two courses on opposite sides of the country achieving fantastic results and offering extremely affordably priced fun golf to boot. It’s the sense of community that these places created that make them beacons in the landscape. I may be an outlier but I know that if given the opportunity to volunteer at my course for a few hours once a week to help fix a bunker, clean up fallen branches, or just help with general course maintenance in exchange for the ability to golf I would be first to sign up.

It’s a program like this that could also work for juniors (within a reasonable age obviously) to not only help grant more access to golf but teach about agronomy and respect for the course itself. I can only imagine that this type of “education” and team environment would help create more life-long golfers. (Please remember this would be 100 percent voluntary and open to both kids and adults alike. I’m not asking or suggesting free hard labour.) Some retirees already do something like this as course marshals.

At this point, I think it’s important to state that I am NOT anti-country club and private course; I love private courses too! Conditions are top notch, the architecture is in most cases primo, which also has a lot to do with the land they were put on when they were founded (especially in North America) rounds are played quickly, perfect practice facilities, I could go on and on. I have a lot of friends that are members at clubs, and like many people in the industry I know a lot of pros that are happy to grant the occasional access on slower days to “friends in the industry.” I love playing golf one way or the other, but at heart I’m a muni kid that has a huge amount of respect for the game and both sides of the fence, regardless of where someone started in the game, or where you choose to play now, we’re all playing golf, and that’s the most important thing.

Sure the pros on T.V. play high-end often expensive and private courses, which is great for entertainment and sponsorships, but municipal golf where you are going to find the largest percentage of golfers who are really the heart and soul of the game. If we really want to #GrowTheGame (a phrase used way too often) and maintain some semblance of accessibility for the next generation of “muni kids” having municipal golf is a critical part of that.

Ask your local course manager or pro how you can help, attend city council meetings. I know I have many times to listen to arguments from both sides and to participate in the discussion. Golf as a whole will be better off for it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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