I started learning when I was five. My grandfather cut down a set of old clubs, strapped them up with leather grips and introduced me to a game that quickly became a passion. A lot of kids learnt like I did, with hand-me-down clubs and a family member prepared to offer the necessary encouragement. The quality of the clubs didn’t matter; it was the quality of the time given that made the difference between falling in love with the game and deciding it was something never to be spoken of again.
I was 10 when I played my first junior competition at the club I called home (Greystones). My grandfather had cut down more clubs to suit my size and so I watched in amazement as my opponent – a year younger than I – arrived with a set of new clubs, new bag and a trolley. I had an old bag over my shoulder, hand-me-down clubs and a putter made from plastic tubing and skirting board. No, that’s not a joke. Back in those days golfers had one putter and it was the most valuable club in the bag. You didn’t go giving those out like cotton candy and so that was the putter I had. And that was the putter that helped me win.
It is safe to say that things have changed since those days and junior golfing equipment is now readily available and aimed with precision at the different age groups. It makes my introduction to the game seem almost comical but there are two sides to this: producing dedicated equipment is a lucrative market for manufacturers; and it enables children of all ages to own clubs that are designed for them… and that they can call their own. This modern equipment offers ample opportunity to attract more kids to the sport and while not every child will be interested there is a far more defined path to help those who are.
“Your number one goal is to create an experience that helps the young golfer fall in love with the game,” says Michelle Holmes, the Director of Instruction at the Michelle Holmes School of Golf. Michelle is originally from Enniscrone but left for college in the United States in 2001, when she was offered a golf scholarship at Campbell University (North Carolina). She has since established a career there as an LPGA Teaching Professional. Her golf school has three locations in Virginia, and her accolades are considerable, including Top 50 US Kids Instructor, US Kids Golf Master Professional, GRAA Top 50 Growth Of The Game Professional, and LPGA Junior Leader Of The Year, NE Section. If anyone knows how to bring the youngest generation into the game, it’s Michelle.
“Focus on three key things,” she says. “First, listen to your child. What you consider to be a fun day at the course may not be the same for them. Children just want to have fun, so let them explore the game in their own way. Accompany them to practice and explain things as they ask them… but remember, you are there to assist them in the journey and it is important that they are in the driver’s seat. Second, find the correct coach/programme. Try multiple coaches, if need be, to find someone whose expertise and personality fit the needs of your young golfer. But be sure your child has the final say. Their bond with the coach will ultimately determine how much they embrace learning the sport. Third, and most importantly, give your child the right equipment. You want them to develop the correct fundamentals which can only be done with the correct equipment.”
You may just want to take your kid to the driving range and have them watch you bashing balls… before asking them to do the same. That may be cool for you but not for them. A key impediment to kids learning to love the game is a parent/other who tries to make everything happen too fast. Adults get wrapped up in perfect golf swings and scores instead of focusing on providing a fun environment for the child. They’re not afraid to miss a shot because they’ll simply try again. You want a child to play aggressively and with confidence. Here’s another no-no: don't give your child a detailed critique of their swing after every shot. Allow them to make mistakes without fear of repercussions.
“How your child performs at age nine has absolutely no bearing on their future. How you react to their play does. Choose your words wisely,” suggests Michelle.
Visit any big golf retailer website (e.g. Odwyersgolf, McGuirks, Halpenny) and you’ll find an abundance of clubs and golf sets for children. The junior audience is well catered for but there’s far more to it than simply picking something off the shelf. It is important to be realistic and to give kids the optimum chance of enjoying their path into the game. To do that they need the appropriate clubs.
“All the kids who come into the shop have a fitting so we can identify the best clubs for them,” says Cian McNamara, Monkstown Golf Club’s Head Professional. “It may only take 15 minutes in our Trackman room but it is essential to consider the child’s height and their abilities. We calculate the optimum length of club and then look at their swing speed to determine the flex of the shaft. Get those right and the child will see a positive ball flight when they strike the ball and that motivates them onwards.”
Cian works with the company US Kids Golf, which runs programmes across America – Michelle Holmes is a US Kids Golf Master Professional – and sells fitted equipment worldwide.
“Most of the children we end up fitting come on to our coaching programmes,” says Cian. “We keep them in groups of equal abilities and plan their activities. It’s important to have a good structure and it’s an area we are looking to expand.”
Covid permitting, Cian and his team will be running coaching camps this year. They already have six groups of juniors with over 100 youngsters involved.
Michelle also works closely with US Kids Golf.
“Give your child the right equipment,” she repeats. “Too many children use clubs that are too long, too stiff and too heavy. It is very important that your child is fitted for the correct set of clubs because when a child plays with clubs that fit, he or she is able to develop consistent swings that will stay with them forever. Always remember that a child should grow out of their golf clubs, not into them.”
It may not be easy to justify expenditure on clubs when you don’t know if your child will actively engage with the sport. Perhaps they will lose interest after a few minutes of coaching. Indeed, it is not even a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’, says Michelle:
“My first rule is that less is more. Do not overload a new golfer with information. For every year of life, we get one minute of learning focus from a child. So, in a 45 minute class of seven year olds we have seven minutes of instruction time and 38 minutes of game-based learning. Get them involved in group activities as it’s more fun to do things with others their own age.”
Children should be given plenty of chances to play. It is about enjoyment and that means playing kid-friendly yardages. Castlebar Golf Club recently developed a six-hole par-3 course specifically designed for kids. Holes measure between 50 and 100 yards. Other clubs have created or are investing in similar developments, a sign that junior coaching is being embraced on more levels than ever before.
It is often said that those in the youngest age brackets are the future of the game. That’s not strictly accurate as so many golfers take up the game later in life – and will continue to do so – but introducing kids to the game when they’re young and giving them the right environment in which to learn means that they can play the game for all of their life… or return to it at some stage in the future when the time is right.
“As a coach, my goal isn't just to give golf lessons, it is to create an entire experience,” Michelle confirms. “This includes everything from quality coaching, social activities, playing opportunities, competition, structure and a long term player development path.
As a parent, your job is to provide them with an experience that will make them want to play the game forever, an experience that will allow their passion and self motivation to grow. Give them the chance to own the game for themselves.”
Before Covid interrupted our lives there were junior programmes and camps being run at almost every golf club in Ireland. Many of these will be thriving again this summer, reigniting kids’ passion for the game and giving others the chance to discover the joys of the sport.
“Every family is on a unique journey,” Michelle concludes. “Some are using golf simply as a fun family activity to do together, whereas some have aspirations of playing college golf and even beyond. No matter the journey, as a coach it's fun to be a part of that.”
These days you’re unlikely to see someone at junior camp with a putter made from plastic piping and skirting board but you’ll see plenty of enthusiasm. Today’s equipment is much more aligned with the needs of children, so offer a child the right path and the right tools for the job, and watch that enthusiasm grow into a passion that can last for more than 90 years.