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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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PGA Professional Brendon Elliott is a multiple award winning Golf Professional based in Central Florida. He is the 2017 PGA of America's National Youth Player Development Award Winner among other coveted awards. He is considered by his peers as an industry expert on topics ranging from Jr. golf player development to operations to industry sustainability. He is the founder of the Little Linksters Golf Academy and the Little Linksters Association for Junior Golf Development, a 501c3 nonprofit also based out of Central Florida. You can learn more about Brendon and Little Linksters at littlelinksters.com

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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The Wedge Guy: Equipment tidbits for you to think about

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One of the most fun things about being a golfer is that we all want to get better–hit drives longer and straighter, iron shots that find greens more often, pitches and chips that get closer, and putts that go in more often. And we all seem to take great pleasure in finding that next “missing link” in our bags that will help us achieve one of those goals.

Today I want to share some thoughts about how little things can often mean a lot when it comes to tweaking your equipment. On the surface, a golf club seems to be a pretty simple thing—a piece of metal, at the end of a tubular piece of metal or graphite, with a rubber-like handle at the end. But when that golf club is put into motion at 100 mph or so, a lot of dynamics begin to happen.

As we ponder the dynamics of the complex action of swinging a golf club and the broad set of mechanics that come into play on every shot, I thought I’d share some random observations I’ve made over the years about equipment cause and effect:

Increasing your driving distance: The industry has taken us on this dramatic quest for distance and power, and the average driver sold today is over 45” long. That’s two inches longer than the standard of 25 years ago. And while the humongous driver heads brag about “forgiveness”, the fact is that your longest drives (and straightest) will always come from dead center hits. It’s still a fact that a sweet spot miss of just ½” will cost you 7-9% distance loss, and a miss of 3/4” will increase that to 12-15%. I suggest you try gripping down on your driver an inch or more the next time you play and see if you don’t hit the ball closer to the sweet spot and see it consistently going longer and straighter. It’s been proven over and over again.

Examining iron specs: The “standard” way a set of irons was engineered for decades was that the irons vary in length by ½”, and in loft by 4 degrees. But the past few years – driven by the relentless quest for distance – we have seen the loft gaps increased to 5° at the short end of the set and as small as 2.5° at the long end. The harsh reality of this geometry is that almost every golfer will have much smaller distance gaps at the long end of the set than at the short end, where distance precision is critical. I have tweaked my irons for years so that I have smaller length and lie differences at the short end than the long, and that allows my distance gaps to be more consistent. Most golfers could benefit from examining their TRUE carry distances from club to club and then tweaking lofts and lengths to fix their gapping.

Fit your putter. It amazes me to watch how many golfers–even some of the pros on TV–and see the toe of the putter up in the air at address. Simple fact is that this makes the face point left because of the loft. I’ve become a true believer in putter fitting. A good fit will ensure that your putter really is aimed at the target, and that the lie angle allows the ball to come off the putter straight. Yes, the style of putter is a matter of personal preference, but a putter that is accurately fit to you makes this maddening part of the game much less so.

Watch your grips. We spend hundreds of dollars on a driver or set of irons, and we get disposable “handles”. It’s a fact that grips wear out. They get dirty. And they need replacing regularly. Take a close look at yours. Worn, dirty grips cause you to grip the club tighter to have control. And bad shots are much more frequent because of that.

Experiment. The toys are a big part of the fun of golf, so don’t be afraid to experiment. I’ve long suggested all golfers should try the blade style short irons of one of your better player friends or pros, but experiment with other clubs, too. Hit your buddies’ hybrids, fairways, irons, drivers. Try different golf balls. [But I just can’t buy that tees can make a difference, sorry.] It’s fun.

So, there you have some random thoughts of the hundreds that swirl around in my head. Let me know your other questions about equipment, and I’ll try to address them in future columns.

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