Sunday, 2 January 2011

Growing the Game

Future Links

On Friday I was invited to come out to see the launch of the Long Term Player Development Guide for Golf in Canada by the Royal Canadian Golf Association (RCGA). Through a wonderfully funny mix up I ended up at the Future Link committee meeting (and will touch on this too) instead of going to the presentation. Through the help and insistence of Dan Pino and Alison King of the RCGA, I ended up instead with a one on one sit down with Dr. Stephen Norris. Dr. Norris is Canada’s leading expert on long term development of athletes – an fascinating man - I was very lucky to have this opportunity and I smartly recorded the whole thing. At the end of our conversation about the plan, I felt like Canadian Golf had finally made the first real step towards trying to develop players and the long term health of the game – something I believe should be a priority for all of us.

First the Future Links Program

The reason I want to talk about the Future Links program is because it is the RCGA’s current program aimed at growing the game. Their goal is to bring children to the game, make the game more accessible, make the game more affordable, help provide the foundation for teaching the game to kids and to provide competition for the developing players.

On their web site they state that “CN Future Links is Canada’s national junior golf development program designed to “Ensure The Future Of Golf”. Conducted by the Royal Canadian Golf Association (RCGA) in partnership with the Canadian Professional Golfers’ Association (CPGA) and Canada’s provincial golf associations, the program consists of multi-level instruction and rewards, clinics, camps, support materials and special programs to raise awareness of junior golf and address the issues of accessibility and affordability.”

I have personally watched one of these programs in full swing at Bell Bay Golf Course in Baddeck, Nova Scotia. Ted Stonehouse, the director of golf, and his staff have drawn upon the community and his suppliers help to pull together one of the best junior development programs I have ever seen. The kids get 6 weeks worth of lessons, a hat, golf balls, lunch each day, a free game of golf at the end, all for around $60. This is a program designed specifically to grow the game, but more importantly Ted and his staff teach the fundamentals and turn the game into fun. It is a program like this that produces long term golfers.

There is also an offshoot of this program that works in a very similar fashion called the “Girls Club” – with the obvious difference being that this is focused on bringing specifically girls to the game. Why is a second group doing almost the same thing you ask? Girls are more likely to register in a golf program that is for girls only, than a program that is open to both genders. Girls are more comfortable learning to play golf if there are other girls their own age and the competitive nature (common with boy’s junior golf) is removed. They want to make friends through golf.

At the committee meeting I attended I was able to learn some fun facts about the Future Links program. It depends on a volunteer system for its success and an individual, like Ted Stonehouse, is the key to a successful program. The CPGA and RCGA are working jointly, but surprisingly they are not “yet” working with provincial organizations – but indicate that is a goal. The National Golf Course Owners Association (NGCOA) was asked to become a partner and declined. They have set up there own “bring a child to the course week” instead, but we all know a one week program (poorly promoted I might add) is not the way to draw new players to the game. Too bad they declined (more to come on this later) because access to the courses is an essential component of growing the interest in kids.

The Future Links Committee runs 6 major Future Links Championships a year which player earn the right to play in through a series of 65 tournaments that offer qualifying points. CN is fond of this section of the program because this is where they receive some excellent local coverage for all the assistance they provide the program. The committee mentioned that they wanted to reduce some of the cost in running the championships and get a little more of there budget (between 700,000 and 800,000 a year) back into grass roots programs such as the clinics. In my opinion participation is far more important than developing future PGA Tour players so I was very pleased to hear this strategy for the long term.

The Influence of Sweden


The number one reason children stay with any game is because they have fun, and the main reason they leave is (of course) because it no longer is fun. While some kids mention exercise, developing skills, or the enjoyment of competition, the “fun factor” is still by far the main reason to draw kids in and keep them through to becoming adults.

The Model of Sweden
Sweden has presented the world with a fascinating model that many are trying to emulate due to its overwhelming success. The Swedish have brought many new players to the game by changing the way things are done. One of the keys to their success has been by promoting the game primarily as a family sport. What is most impressive in their participation numbers are the numbers of players under the age of 20, and even more impressive is the number of overall players who are women. The model I mentioned in the “Girls Club” is actually one adopted from Sweden where they first recognized the differences between how to encourage boys with competition and girls with friendships – the numbers speak for themselves.

The overall population of the county is 9,000,000 with golfers representing 600,000 or 15%. This is up from the around 8% in the 1980’s. The percentage of player under 20 is approximately 15%. The percentage of women’s play is 27%.
One of the great factors to the large percentage of junior golfers in the system is the club structures. There is a unique system to Sweden where juniors can be members at clubs, with the club having no obligations to accept them as members when they become adults. It creates a system where more juniors have access to more places to play.

Producing More Professionals

I don’t personally care whether Canada produces players who make it on the PGA tour, but I do care about increasing participation in golf. Many others believe the key to increased participation is finding and developing the next Mike Weir since role models and examples draw people to the game. Tiger Woods has had an undeniable effect on participation due to his dominance of not only golf but the focus of the sports media in general for the last 10 years.


So again returning to Sweden, why has a country with a much smaller population produced far more professional players? The first answer from the professionals themselves was that they began in an environment that had little initial pressure. The majority of clubs have developed programs based around participation first and assisting aspiring players on much later on. They also foster a system with well educated youth leaders who provide everything from coaching through to mentoring to help them progress.

As players developed the programs changed too. Rather than try place players into a standard program the Swedish believe in tailoring a program to suit the player. They also encourage players to mix their training and maintain activity beyond golf. Cross-training was important to skills development as it was to maintaining the interest in what they were doing. They also arranged special privileges at some clubs to make sure a very promising junior had the ability to practice and play more.

Interestingly competition pressure was discouraged until they were old enough to deal with it, although a young player that thrived under competition was allowed to compete right away. In other words they were flexible to the child’s needs. They also discovered that just playing was not the best way to develop skill, rather a larger emphasis was placed on getting the motor skills established by hitting more balls and learning to make a solid impact. The other very simple system was to not practice at each component of the game equally, but rather to encourage more practice on the weakest part of the game. Finally, they didn’t try to stay to one coach per player, but realized we all have strengths and weaknesses, and that multiple coaches with specific skills did a far better job than one single person.

The Long Term Player Development Guide

Canadian Golf has a clear focus on finding the next Mike Weir. What people have come to realize is while Canadian’s were buoyed by the success of Mike, the reality was the Canadian development programs were not getting the results that should be expected. By looking at the countries like Sweden, the RCGA and others have slowly realized that they needed to change in order to produce more talented players – and as an important offshoot of the process produce more golfers. They use Sweden as the example that they can achieve both goals with one program.

The Long Term Player Development Guide for Golf In Canada (LTPD) is set up to empower athletes, coaches and parents to understand not only how to help their kids learn and succeed at the game, but to keep them in the game regardless of their skill set. Canada according to IPSOS Reid (I still have questions about the findings – but let’s take them at face value for this) has the highest participation rate in golf at around 20%, which is outstanding, but begs the question of why aren’t we producing more elite players.

I sat down with Dr. Stephen Norris (picture tomorrow - I was in a rush this morning) to go over The LTPD Guide. While I was hoping for a quick 5 to 10 minutes, he gave me nearly 2 hours of his time. I honestly don’t think I can do justice to the program by trying to fully explain it, but I will give you some insights and some comments from Dr. Norris to at least get you interested enough to seek this document from the RCGA.

He started out by explaining to me that they had to build the right system that has the right benchmarks in order to grow the game. That this system will eventually generate better players, but it will take 15-20 years to see the benefits. He then went on to say that, “anyone we touch should look back at the program and say I had a great time and learned a lot.” I liked that approach, because I feared this would be only about producing elite athletes.

We began on the notion that it is easier to get them to the game, than it is to keep them in the game till they’re an adult. We continued on to discuss the limited access to play and the expensive cost faced in the metropolitan areas. We both agreed that it was much easier to get involved and stay involved in a rural setting, where costs and access are less challenging and community support is much stronger. The National Golf Course Owners Association was not invited, according to the NGCOA, to have any active role in any solution.
Dr Norris was disappointed by this pointing out that golf was a facility based sport and that the United States closed more courses than opened this year for first time since World War Two. They need to understand that without growth, they place themselves at risk. We went on to discuss that the golf organizations are a fractured group with only the RCGA and CPGA actively working together. Even Provincial and National bodies don’t seem to be as close as I would have assumed.

Dr. Norris was surprised to find out that a city as big as Toronto does not have a Children’s only course or a project by the First Tee Program. I told him that I did know whether this was due to a lack of national leadership or local initiative, but I’m offering my services for free if someone will step to the plate.

The conversation returned to the guide with a quick review of the factors that effect the development of players from physical complications like puberty through to mixed development timing on kids and even the need to separate groups by methods beyond age. The guide next provides a vision out on how to go forward by first identifying that golf is a family game, drawing from the Swedish model. It mentions that manufacturers and retailers must make the game initially affordable, which I might add they generally do by providing cost effective equipment packages now. Those juniors must have access to courses and that training facilities are made available. Enjoyment must be the initial focus. The role those schools and other non-traditional introductions have in introducing children to the game. The requirement for additional sources of funding or sponsorship to support grass roots programs like Future Links. Finally, identifying barriers must come down to open up the game to everyone.

Enter, Enjoy and Excel

Dr. Stephen Norris

They use the slogan Enter, Enjoy and Excel to talk about their Long term approach. The guide sets out to clearly empower the child and parent to expect a nurturing environment to begin their experience with the game. Once the player has established their interest in the game and then shown a little skill that can be encouraged, the guide helps establish where and how additional coaching or teaching can be added to improve the child’s ability and enjoyment of the game. It also deals with issues such as gender separation at key times, the variety in personal development schedules, and the need to make sure slow developers are not left behind like they are in hockey. Finally this helps explain the role of parents to help them know what to do and what not to do.

The next stage of our conversation was about not following the standard pattern we always have used and pointing blindly to the successes that it has achieved. Golf needs to get away from the problems of hockey, such as a majority of NHL players are born between January and March, due to the way the drafting system separates players out during puberty, so that a late child is always placed at a huge physical disadvantage. In hockey the biggest issue is there is almost no way back in once the player has been by-passed by the system. In golf, none of the latest crop of great players was a junior champion, which shows that the path of development is not as simple as you might think – or as hockey makes it out to be.

Think of how many players are discarded when they are not far enough along at key times. The Guide sets out a system where a player can find his or her game later in life and can still enter (later) into the elite development system through a system that allow reportage. Dr. Norris went on to say there were other areas where we needed to break the conventional thinking such as looking at less conventional ways to teach, run tournaments and train players.

He continues to explain that you need to hit 1000’s of shots to learn the motor skills to play well. Yet golf is about hitting as few shots as possible and making the least amount of swings. Players even stick to the shots there most confident with to score rather than get inventive of creative during a round. Doesn’t it make more sense to find a way to encourage kids to hit more shots, develop new skills and to make a more solid impact on the ball? He went on to say eighteen holes take too long and is not as productive as training. The reason kids don’t practice much is the adult version of practice is painfully dull. He felt an alternative is needed like a Big Break like skills course, the idea of short courses or technical training areas meant to stimulate and teach at the same time. His ideal facility would be a swing facility with a mixture of shots and a movable target system made to develop more skills.

As a kid I used to play overland golf at twilight. We also played our own version of the Big Break challenges for quarters when we were bored with playing too much. No wonder I had a great short game as a kid and don’t posses that skill as an adult. I mentioned to Dr. Norris that the new chipping facility I built for St. Catharines Golf & Country Club has a three hole short course for young kids built into it. We certainly may not be able to accomplish the big facilities, but small footprints can still me be made into very flexible teaching and practicing facilities used to the kids skills since they hit the ball shorter distances.
Pulling Together to Get it Done


In the movie A Beautiful Mind, Russel Crowe’s character is at the bar with all his other colleagues when they notice a beautiful blond. The group discussion leads to the comment of Adam Smith’s “the individual ambition serves the common good.” Nash turns and says “Adam Smith needs a revision. If we all go for the blonde, we block each other, and not a single one of us is goin’ to get her. So then we go for her friends, but they will all give us the cold shoulder because nobody likes to be second choice. But what if no one goes for the blonde? We don’t get in each other’s way, and we don’t insult the other girls. That’s the only way we win. That’s the only way we all get laid.” Adam Smith said, “the best result comes from everyone in the group doing what’s best for himself, right? That’s what he said, right? Incomplete. Incomplete! Because the best result would come from everyone in the group doing what’s best for himself and the group.

Dr. Norris gave this example when I mentioned about the groups needing to come together first if this is going to work. All the parties that have a part in the future of the game need to decide whether they are going to work together and grow the game for the greater good, or maintain the dysfunctional status quo. This is why I have been bugging the RCGA and Score and other publications about putting on a summit on the state of the game – it is the best chance to begin the dialogue necessary to bring the parties back to the same table.

The next stage for the LPTD is getting people to take this road map and make the facilities, start the programs, and get everybody involved. If they don’t all come together and pull in the same direction then this is just a plan – a very good plan – but a plan all the same. The problem we currently have is the individual egos involved, some hurt feelings generated along the way – and two entities that don’t like to sit at the table together.

The key ending this nonsense – at least on this one crucial issue – is to begin a dialogue on the subject. We need to bring all the parties to the same table and begin communication facilitated by someone who will keep the focus only on the future of the game. Dr Norris is definitely the ideal choice. His technique of getting people to first understand what other people at the table would like help break down the barriers and open up a fruitful discussion on what is best for all involved.

Dr Norris said, “passion and feeling make change, otherwise you only get short term change.” Right now this guide has great momentum, but this can all stall without a commitment from the golf industry as a whole. The Swedish system works because it is a joint venture between the key bodies that run golf which removes all the fiefdoms and individual egos that ruin sport. The hard work starts now. While I don’t expect the two bickering associations to get along, isn’t this worth giving an honest effort for the betterment of the game.

3 comments:

  1. Wow, that was pretty interesting. Inspiring, as well. Thanks for sharing such inspiring experience with us. Great blog, congrats!

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  2. Ian you rock. Growing the game must include the real people, people such as myself who will never shoot below 80 and don't care if I do and Of Course ... without making the game fun for all, young & old, it will wither on the vine. Look Forward to working with you.

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