Try to think back to what you were doing at age 11. Probably few of you were pounding golf balls at the range. Because that’s not exactly the most appealing activity for any kid. Most kids want to do what their friends are doing — whether it’s playing basketball, tennis, soccer or just simply watching MTV. So it wasn’t a big surprise to read Matthew Futterman’s article in the Wall Street Journal about the appalling numbers related to kids playing golf these days. (Paging Jim Frank! This is one of his favorite topics, but apparently he’s out of pocket.)
According to the National Golf Foundation’s most recent participation report, the number of golfers age 6-17 dropped 24% to 2.9 million from 3.8 million between 2005 and 2008.
Here’s a reason: Want to make an eight-year-old cry? Tee up a ball for him on a 450-yard hole with a green surrounded by bunkers and tell him to hole out before the group waiting to tee off starts complaining to the course superintendent. All the testosterone-induced courses constructed over the past decade just make it worse. Kids need to start on family-friendly facilities where they can be provided with some good old-fashioned self-esteem.
Yikes! Okay, so I guess I’m a little shocked by the extent of the decline. But seriously, I can personally attest there were plenty of other things I would have preferred to have been doing during my preteen years. You know, like play with Barbies or whatever it is 11-year-old girls do. But one day, my stepdad came home and informed me I was going to play golf.
There were some perks, though. My parents initially bribed me to accompany them to the driving range at the local muni, conveniently located down the street. I mostly watched them and then tried to hit a few, but I became bored after making contact with the ball several times. My parents decided I was a natural. (As most parents think their kids are.) Next came lessons. Soon after, I became a range rat, pounding balls almost every day for at least two hours. But would I have had the patience to deal with the frustrations of learning such a tedious, difficult game had I not been “gently coaxed”? Hell no.
Luckily, exchanging after-school TV specials for range balls paid off somewhat quickly, and by the time I was 12, I was able to hit the ball decently and shoot in the low 40s for nine holes. And even more luckily, there were lots of junior golfers, all of whom were boys, at the local muni. Soon, I was dragging my step-dad to the course because, well, there were boys! Yeah, totally lame, I know, but whatever works, right? Now obviously, this isn’t a solution to fixing the problem of the dwindling number of junior golfers.
Futterman offers a great answer: “Try finding a decent pitch-and-putt where young kids and their families can hone their skills playing a mini-version of the game that doesn’t involve putting through a windmill.”
When I was first starting out, my parents dragged me to a few par-3 courses to ease me into the sometimes traumatic experience of actually playing a course. I was lucky there were quite a few in the area. The course I learned to play on was a muni, but initially seemed daunting, especially since it was, naturally, filled with mostly middle-aged men.
Thing is, golf isn’t really a family-friendly sport unless you put in the extra effort, which most people don’t have the patience for. A round of golf door-to-door takes five or six hours, easy. In this ever-growing ADD world, that’s a huge drag.
When my family joined a country club, I was 14 and the junior program wasn’t the best. Kids were seen as a nuisance. Even when I became a scratch handicap, I didn’t feel particularly welcome. Sometimes the pro shop looked the other way to let my fellow junior golfers and me (who were better than 98% of the membership) play at times we technically weren’t allowed to (stupid country club rules). But that’s another topic. I just felt like rambling about my experiences for a moment.
[Photo at some junior golf tournament when I was around 14-15, who knows.]