Last year was another memorable one for golf, no more so than for the European Ryder Cup team and the world?s best player, Tiger Woods. Yet as we enter 2007, the hunt is still on to find Britain?s next Major champion and somebody who can finally challenge the world number one. We can see potential in the current crop of talent but the seven-and-a-half year wait since Paul Lawrie lifted the Claret Jug speaks volumes.
For the Golf Foundation and its chief executive, Mike Round, the search for future champions is a passionate, highly committed process and one that has brought success and frustration in large doses.
With other sports like football, rugby, cricket and basketball on the agenda ? as well as a whole host of less wholesome distractions ? the challenge of getting young children into the game of golf is a tough one. The image that the game has built over the years, fair or not, is one of elitism, stuffiness and high costs ? all providing further stumbling blocks in attracting ?cool-conscious? kids to the game.
But thanks to the tireless efforts of Round and his colleagues, and some high-profile assistance from the likes of Radio 1 DJ Spoony and Dame Kelly Holmes, significant inroads have been made in the past few years by the Golf Foundation, who have charged themselves with preserving the future of our sport. Help has also been forthcoming from the R&A, Sport England and numerous tour pros in promoting the cause, particularly at the Open Championship. This year the likes of Ian Poulter and Paul Broadhurst gave kids informal lessons in Hoylake?s tented village.
The Golf Foundation has been the face of junior golf at club level since it was formed in 1952 but, as Round says, the organisation has changed dramatically in the past six years or so.
?We traditionally were very involved in clubs, and although that remained we needed a way of being a lot more active alongside other sports within the local authority sector,? he says.
This shift in emphasis was clearly implemented in 2000 with the revolutionary development of the ?Tri-Golf? game, which could be introduced to schools and inner-city communities. Tri-Golf is a ?mini? version of the game that utilises oversized plastic clubheads, sponge balls and Velcro targets ? eradicating many of the safety issues that have previously held the sport back in schools. Tri-Golf also presented the opportunity to rid golf of some of its stuffy, old-fashioned perceptions by showing youngsters the fun side of the game.
The success of the initiative has been phenomenal and the Golf Foundation says it has already reached around 500,000 young children, in some 5,000 schools. The Golf Foundation has since launched Golf Xtreme, an advanced version of the game for those aged between 11 and 16. Golf Xtreme makes use of child-friendly clubs and reduced-flight balls, which react more like the real thing than those used in Tri-Golf.
?We are beginning to marry the club world and education world,? says Round. ?Golf is a good place to be at the moment ? there is a lot of exciting work to be done but we definitely have the foundations in place.?
Playing crucial roles in the implementation of the Golf Foundation?s strategy are the schoolteachers and the golf development officers, who are there to teach the children in the numerous golf centres dotted around the UK. When Golf Monthly travelled to the WaterWorks Golf Centre in Leyton for a meeting with Round, we encountered a group of Year 6 students from Wilbury Primary School in Edmonton, London.
“Golf is a good place to be ? there is a lot of work to be done but we definitely have the foundations in place”
Under the guidance of WaterWorks? golf development officer David Botley, the children hurried enthusiastically through a series of Tri-Golf games ? hardly approaching the game with the measure of an Ernie Els or a Fred Couples. But there was a method behind this. ?Young kids don?t want to sit still for very long and so Tri-Golf is often played at a high tempo,? says Botley. ?This has two benefits. Firstly, it keeps them on the move, which means they don?t get bored. In addition to this it gives them a good workout too, which is a big priority for us.?
Accompanying the Wilbury schoolchildren on their golfing trip was their teacher, Caroline Scott. She admitted she had no real experience of golf but was amazed by how quickly the children seemed to learn the game.
?I think the Tri-Golf scheme has everything it needs to be a success,? she said. ?It?s accessible, and for me the crucial thing is that it seems to offer the children quick results. Most of them have told me that they hadn?t realised that golf could be such fun. I admit that it did look fun ? I wanted to have a go myself! The Tri-Golf passport system seems a really good idea too. The children can complete it in school and then take it along to their nearest golf centre to continue their education.?
Such positive feedback is music to the ears of Round ? hearing the testimonies of the children and their teachers is undoubtedly one of the best parts of the job for him.
The rationale behind these schemes goes further than focusing simply on golf skills. As all golfers know, one of the most wonderful things about our game is that it promotes values such as honesty, respect and perseverance ?values that form a major part of the Golf Foundation?s recent re-branding. The ideals behind the strap line ?Skills for Life? represent everything that is good about the game and these are taught to the juniors alongside the golf programmes.
Recent studies have shown that golf can have a number of positive effects on the lives of children. The St Helens School Partnership involves six secondary and 30 primary schools and has successfully incorporated golf into the curriculum. Not only did the profile of junior golf within PE and the town of St Helens rise considerably, there was also improved attendance, improved attitude towards sport and big improvements in confidence and self esteem.
While the Golf Foundation has already made significant steps, it cannot achieve further success without the support of current lovers of the game. This is where the new Commit to Junior Golf campaign comes in. ?What the campaign is about is saying if club members donate £2 each a year we will be able to take everything on to the next level,? says Round. ?There really is so much more to do and rather than creating hundreds of new initiatives it will enable us to invest in the programmes we have started.?
The Golf Foundation is asking club members to donate £2 through their annual club subscriptions and invest in the future of the game. Crown Golf, which operates 31 golf clubs, has already put its weight behind the idea by encouraging each of its 20,000 members to back the scheme. And as vital as the £2 contributions are, there is even more that golfers can do to help.
?Golfers can play an ambassadorial role ? we see a number of golfers who are keen to do extra. We see the £2 donation as the base level and after that there are activities [that can be run] such as adult and junior foursomes events where we supply prize packs.?
As more and more youngsters are pushed in the direction of club golf, it becomes the responsibility of clubs to support their future.
“Many members fail to realise that although juniors pay a reduced fee they are vital to clubs? future success”
Mike Harper is the junior organiser of a thriving section at Broadway Golf Club in Gloucestershire. He feels changing the attitudes of members towards juniors is a slow process.
?The basic problem we encounter is the ageing membership of golf clubs. Many of these members fail to realise that although juniors pay a reduced fee they are vital to the future success of clubs,? he explains.
In order to recognise the efforts of clubs at junior level, the English Golf Union has developed the GolfMark ? a national award that identifies and recognises junior and beginner-friendly golf facilities. Once clubs have gained GolfMark they can apply for the Clubmark award, a cross-sport accreditation that highlights clubs with outstanding junior sections.
As Harper explains, this is important for the welfare of juniors. ?Child protection is now a major part of any junior activity and these accreditations give parents reassurance that their children are being looked after. The GolfMark and Clubmark awards recognise that there are
clubs out there doing their best for junior sport.?
Through events such as the adult and junior foursomes, barriers between seniors and juniors can be broken down. Senior members get to see that juniors are crucial contributors to their club and the juniors get an opportunity to learn about the values of the game.
One of the major problems for juniors in the past has been the cost of membership but many clubs are now focusing on keeping prices down for their younger members.
?Golf needs to keep in mind that it?s not just about tomorrow or next week ? it?s about the future, something that has been ignored by golf clubs for years. It?s important to invest now for the future. Golfers are very loyal so it also makes business sense to invest properly,? says Round.
Much has been achieved already, but Round and his team are not about to rest on their laurels. As we begin to wind down the interview we ask him what would be his dream scenario for the Golf Foundation in the future.
?Ideally golf will be played in schools all over the country, junior membership of golf clubs will rise consistently and we will have helped produce a couple of Open champions,? he replies. ?These goals are not unobtainable and we are determined to see it through. The main obstacle to this, of course, is funding. We need golfers everywhere, of all ages, to help us as much as they can.?
Over to you.