If someone asks Scott Nye what’s preventing young people from playing golf, the head pro has lots of examples at the ready. “Look at AAU basketball programs, lacrosse camps, overnight camps like Tecumseh, AAU baseball, and even sports like ultimate Frisbee that have summer leagues,” says Nye, who’s been Merion Golf Club’s pro since 2000. “Between electronics and all of those things, finding time for a junior to go out and play for fun is tough.”
It’s one thing to spend countless hours trying to reach the next level of a videogame, and quite another to perfect a swing that seemingly could betray you at any minute. Golf is a great game, but it’s also really hard. “We’re fighting against a lot of things,” Nye says. “There’s a huge push to get this generation playing.”
Nye is among the pros at clubs in Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware who are working to increase youth and family programs and expand competition opportunities. Examples can be found everywhere. At Garrison’s Lake Golf Club in Smyrna, Del., golfers 18 years or younger are eligible for a 50 percent discount, and juniors play for free on Saturday and Sunday afternoons when accompanied by a paying adult. Garrison’s Lake is also unveiling new sets of tees designed to make the game more enjoyable and accessible to people of all ages and skill levels. Atglen, Pa.’s Moccasin Run hosts summer evenings where families can play five or nine holes for a low rate. At Wild Quail Golf Club in Wyoming, Del., Rick McCall Sr.’s Junior Golf Academy runs year-round. Some of his students have gone on to play on the PGA and LPGA tours.
“Youth participation has grown exponentially,” says Leila Mackie, the Philadelphia PGA’s player development director. “When I started in 2013, there were zero teams in the junior league—nobody participated. The amount of teams has doubled every year since. It’s definitely going to grow again this year.”
The PGA Jr. League is one of the more popular ways to engage youth in the game—and it’s unlike anything that’s existed around golf. In 2017, 27 different age-group leagues, comprised of over 2,000 players on 136 teams at 86 area facilities, participated. Golfers 13 and under wear team jerseys and compete against each other in a nine-hole scramble format designed to hone skills and familiarize players with everything from course etiquette to scoring protocols. “It introduces kids to the game in a fun, social atmosphere,” Mackie says. “The format takes the pressure off them and allows them to play with friends.”
Young players in the PGA Jr. League.
Competitive opportunities have also been growing steadily for several years. The Philadelphia Junior Tour offers about 90 events throughout a six-month season for all levels. There are 18- and nine-hole competitions over one day, along with more intense 36-hole events over two days. These give golfers a chance to improve their regional and national rankings.
The Philadelphia PGA offers four major tournaments each year: the Junior PGA Championship; the Harry Hammond Invitational, for golfers who are heading to college; the Jon M. Pritsch Cup, against golfers from the New Jersey PGA Section; and the Junior Tour Championship, an invitation-only event for the area’s top golfers. In Delaware, the marquee event is the Junior Championships, held last year at Deerfield Golf Club in Newark. Competition can be fierce—and with that comes a problem other youth sports face. “There are some crazy parents out there,” says Nye. “A lot of times, the rules keep parents a certain amount of yards away from their kids. But when they get crazy, it can be brutal. But it’s important to know that most are great and keep their distance.”
High-level competition is great for established golfers, but if the golf community wants to groom future players—and let’s face it, club members—it must create grassroots programs, too. One such endeavor is the GAP-sponsored Pre-Junior Event, open to kids 11 and under whose families are members of GAP-affiliated clubs. The day includes a presentation of game rules and a sample hole of golf designed to introduce different shots, caddying specifics and more. The youngsters play six holes, and the day ends with a barbecue.
Then there’s the First Tee, a youth development organization that introduces the sport to young people in Greater Philadelphia and Delaware, teaching the game through its “Nine Core Values,” among them honesty, integrity, perseverance and courtesy.
Delaware State Golf Association executive director Bill Barrow says the DSGA is working toward introducing a program called Youth on Course, administered by the Golf Association of Philadelphia. Based in Northern California, Youth on Course allows juniors to play at a variety of courses for only $5, with the Northern California Golf Association picking up the difference. After 18 months, the onus would be on the local PGA chapter to provide the necessary funding. The NCGA also offers internships and scholarships.
The PGA’s Golf in Schools program.
The PGA’s Golf in Schools initiative is introducing the game throughout the region by providing a curriculum for physical education teachers. “They use equipment made for indoor purposes,” says the PGA’s Mackie. “There are plastic clubs and tennis balls. The goal is to teach them the basics.”
Since 2013, the Drive, Chip and Putt competition—founded by the PGA, the United States Golf Association and the Masters Tournament—has afforded boys and girls ages 7-15 the opportunity to test their skills in the game’s three primary disciplines. The free program produces local age-group qualifiers, who have the chance to move on to regional and national levels. “We get more people every year,” Mackie says.
Though golf associations don’t have direct authority over high school play, they do help promote it by working with local clubs to allow teams to compete on their courses. Merion alone is home to seven teams, including those at the Agnes Irwin School, the Baldwin School, the Episcopal Academy (boys and girls), Friends’ Central School (boys), Haverford High School (boys), and the Haverford School. “Access is a challenge for a lot of schools, especially since more of them have girls’ teams than before,” Nye says.
And if all of that organized golf activity isn’t enough, private and public clubs throughout the region offer clinics, special rates, lessons and tournaments designed for young players. One example is Delaware’s Newark Country Club, which has a new program open to all currently enrolled high school and college students, offering fees of just $200 per semester or $500 for the year. “It can be confounding, and the network can be overwhelming,” admits Mark Peterson, executive director of the Golf Association of Philadelphia. “But when you find the best situation for your child, it becomes easier and rewarding.”
And a great way to get kids outside for a few hours.
Jim Finnegan contributed to this story.