Junior golf needs a change of approach

The Golf Trust founder Cae Menai-Davis makes a call for a complete change of approach to junior golf taster sessions, for the long-term good of the sport.

Menai-Davis works at The Shire London, which along with sister venue West London Golf Centre prides itself on being a truly multi-cultural golf club which crosses the class divide. Recently the Golf Trust held the final of the girls-only Golf’s Got Talent event at The Buckinghamshire GC, that was itself the culmination of a four-month project in which 5,000 young girls have tried golf as the first phase of a long-term sustainable golf coaching programme in UK schools and communities.

He argues that most junior golf introductory programmes run at club, regional or national level actually have an alienating effect on the desired audience over the long term, with over-emphasis on expensive brands, short-term box-ticking and even the dress sense of the average golf professional called into question, when working in the community.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 15.43.22What do you think of the way in which our sport currently attempts to get more young people into golf?

I realise that this may be a controversial viewpoint, but the majority of junior golf taster sessions simply don’t work. It’s no good introducing young people to golf if there is no clear pathway to help them stay in the sport. I’m not talking about junior golfers whose parents or relatives play the sport – they will always be okay. They get ferried to and from the golf course, they get bought the branded golf clothes, they fit right into the club environment. But what I’m talking about are the millions of other kids in schools and communities who may well have a golf taster session, but who have no desire or financial ability to follow it through. That’s why we’re not seeing any truly starling numbers of youngsters starting to play golf in the UK, even nowadays.

What puts them off?

A single session on a social housing estate, or in a school in a deprived area, doesn’t do much good. Typically, a PGA pro will turn up wearing Ping or Nike, in expensive golf shoes, nice chinos, and a sponsored car with his name all over it. He might as well be from Jupiter, to these kids. In some cases, it can actually have a negative effect, reinforcing the image of golf as elitist and expensive – for the haves, and not for the have-nots. There’s a big class divide between a middle-class golf pro, and an inner-city community, and it can create negative emotions after the pro has left, particularly when there is no long-term follow-through.

What’s your solution to the class issue?

At The Golf Trust, we quickly try to identify people we call ‘community leaders’ wherever we go. They can be parents, or charismatic older kids, or even carers. But they have to come from the community in question. After the initial taster sessions, we look to implement golf coaching sessions in six to ten week blocks, in the community, so that there is genuine, sustainable follow-through. From these sessions, we then develop the best pathway for those kids to experience golf at another level, be it at a local golf club, or a driving range. It’s no good simply turning up in your Audi, flashing your logos and smart shoes, and expecting kids to follow you back to the club – they can’t afford it, they can’t get there, and they wouldn’t want to anyway.

What part does political correctness play?

Look, this has to be said. Let’s not pretend that box-ticking doesn’t exist, it does. It looks and feels good to say ‘we’ve been into the community’, or ‘we’ve been into local schools’. But if you’ve just gone in, picked out the best ones – particularly from minority groups – and gone back out again, it’s political correctness, and not a true pathway. You’ll put the photos on your website, and use them to bring people to your golf club, where they will then spend money with you. At the heart of the problem is the commercial nature of the modern sport. There are very few truly altruistic initiatives out there – the majority have some financial benefit for the golf club concerned, and local communities are wise to that.

What about golf’s role models?

Again, this is a controversial opinion, but I think Rory McIlroy may not be the ideal role model for the sport, if we truly want to attract newcomers throughout all the different classes of society in the UK. Rory was picked for stardom at an early age. He’s a very special talent, and clearly he’s one of the good guys in the game, but kids in UK inner-cities find it hard relate to him. Darren Clarke took him under his wing when he was still at junior school. The BBC had his photograph when he was just a young lad. He was given every possible advantage in life, and that’s a leg-up which most kids don’t get. They don’t have his advantages, and golf needs to appeal to them in a different way. Look at how Lewis Hamilton battled his way up, or in golf look at Ian Poulter’s background – they are probably better role models. I’ll repeat, most junior golfers get into the sport through their parents, who can afford the time and expense. We’re in danger of fishing continuously in the same pool, which means the sport will never truly change.

What part do brands play in this?

A lot of the junior development money coming into golf has a commercial brand attached, and that instantly limits its chances of success. Whether it’s people wearing branded golf gear, or the presence of a corporate sponsor’s logo, it’s seen as unreal. Inward investment from brands may make the commercial world go around, but it also potentially inhibits underprivileged kids from getting into golf.

So what is the true pathway to success?

Take football – it’s cheap and easy. Something you can play with your dad, your granddad, your brothers and sisters. It’s played in the community. It is organised by people who live in the community, who are there permanently, accessible to all. They speak the same language of life as the kids do, and things build naturally around them. That’s what golf has to achieve – strip away all of the visible trappings of success, because that intimidates people. Find those community leaders, help them give simple coaching, and ultimately help them put kids on a genuine, affordable pathway which ultimately leads to them turning up at a club or a driving range with enough skill to hold their own, and be proud of how they can hit a ball.

The sad fact is that, in certain highly-populated parts of the UK, 99 percent of kids who may be exposed to a community or schools golf taster session lack a realistic chance of ever progressing in the sport. At The Golf Trust, we are working hard to change this from the ground up.

More at: www.thegolftrust.com