Growing Junior Golf - Interview with PGA Pro Allan Knox
How do we attract more kids to the game? It is arguably the most important question to be answered in golf.
The environment has never been more challenging, with golf being seemingly incompatible with the modern desire for instant gratification. Technology has made us impatient. Positive results are expected at an accelerated rate in the 21st century. And that is simply not possible with golf. It is time consuming to play, and it’s an arduous task to become even moderately proficient at it. Throw into the mix the potentially off-putting costs, stuffy attitudes, and it’s very easy to conclude why the game has a problem attracting youngsters. There are simply easier options out there.
Numerous theories and initiatives intended to increase participation among children have been introduced nationally, but ultimately it is at the individual clubs all across the country where the fight has to be won. They have always been – and continue to be – the most likely pathway into the game, and driving numbers is a challenge facing every club as they look to secure their long-term future by bringing through the next generation of golfers.
Each club is distinctive and has its own obstacles to overcome – and King James VI is certainly a unique case. Situated on Moncrieffe Island on the River Tay in the centre of the city of Perth, the golf club is in a strangely isolated position – betraying its seemingly desirable urban location. Accessible only by a walkway on a railway bridge, it isn’t possible to simply park the car outside the clubhouse and dash round to the first tee. The secluded ten minute walk over a bridge and through a wooded area to the course can be intimidating to parents and youngsters.
Allan Knox has been the PGA Professional at King James since 2008 – when he replaced Andrew Crerar – having formerly served as an assistant professional at Crieff and Dunbar golf clubs. It has been a challenge for him. While the state of the junior programme appeared to be in decent position at first-viewing when he arrived, it soon became clear that attracting youngsters would be an extremely difficult task in the subsequent years.
“When I first started at King James – there were four really good players. Sam McLaren, Paul McPhee, then after that there was nothing,” said Knox. “No real young ones about six-years-old, five-years-old to come through. Which made it really difficult. So we had to start from scratch.”
An ominous proposition for any young professional, though starting at the bottom has allowed Allan to lay the foundations, providing a clearer path of progression for junior golfers starting out at the club.
“We start with Saturday lessons for beginners. They come down and learn all aspects – all the shots – so they’ve got an understanding of everything from grip to posture, bunker-shots, chip-shots. We do that consistently through the season. At the end of that, there’s a little course in the practice area that we’ve mapped out, give them a little card and we send them round that. We try and give them an insight into rules, etiquette.
“Then we would put them on our Wednesday night classes – which are free of charge. They go out with volunteers and myself – play three or four holes of the proper course with a card to mark down their score. It’s not so much about what is wrong with their swing – but about playing. Rules, basics. Get them ready for the medals.”
That final stage – the junior medals on a Sunday – is an area that Knox believes needs to be enhanced even further. Having grown up playing and spending his formative years as an assistant professional at the renowned Dunbar Golf Club, Allan experienced an atmosphere there that he is hoping to replicate at King James.
“When I was at Dunbar – the kids would come down, have putting competitions, spend time in the pro-shop annoying the professional, go and get a burger for lunch, then go out and play with the junior convener walking around making sure everyone is doing the right thing. And then when they came in – the mums and dads were there – there was a wee leaderboard. If someone got a handicap cut, there would be a big fuss, and then they would go out and play again. It was a really good day.”
That sense of occasion is something that has been lacking for the kids at King James – and that is partly a result of the juniors not being a close-knit group. Togetherness is something that Allan is attempting to build.
“We thought that we had everything in place – then looking at it – they didn’t really want to play with each other. So we ran some summer camps, the idea of that was to make it fun – four days – all together. Four or five hours each day. They’re out on the course, they have a laugh. Just a bit of bonding to get them comfortable with each other. Then we have a competition at the end of that.
“We have a plan this year to have a camp night down at the practice area. So, I’ve spoken with a few of the parents, and they seem really keen. Obviously the volunteers need to be checked, but there is no one down there at night – it’s nice and safe – wee camp fire, then in the morning – hit a few shots and then they’re away. So it will be different, and hopefully it will help grow friendship and camaraderie.”
Ryder Cup Legacy
Last year, Perthshire hosted the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. A huge event for the county that was boldly predicted to enhance participation and inspire youngsters to take up the game. However, in reality, that has not been the case for Allan.
“For me (the Ryder Cup) got a little bit of hype – and kids were taken along to it – but I don’t think it’s had any impact. Maybe some new adults have started playing – because they got interested and caught up in the whole thing – but for the kids it was just another event like the Open that they go to. It was massive for Perthshire, but it missed the juniors a little bit.”
Part of the Ryder Cup “legacy” in Scotland was the nationwide initiative of ClubGolf, which was designed to introduce the game to every child by the age of nine. More than 350,000 kids have participated in ClubGolf events at school – since its inception in 2003 - with 15% of them progressing into stage one coaching.
The figures and premise sound good – but has it actually driven juniors to golf clubs? Not at King James.
“I think the programme is good, but I believe that it comes down to our location,” added Knox. “We’ve been to the schools – we’ve tried contacting primary schools on our backs and have done activities weeks – where we had groups of kids down for a day or two. Some of it has worked, but again it comes down to kids having so much that they can do these days. So it’s really important for us – when they do come down here – to make it as fun as possible.”
It is clear when talking with Allan that the course’s unique (and isolated) location has become a recurring obstacle, but efforts have been made to ease any worries that parents may have for their children’s safety when spending time at the club.
“You do get mums and dads who find the location a little-bit off-putting. So you’ve got to try really hard to welcome them when they first get here, and make it clear that their kids are safe once they’re down here. And if they need help going back across – they can go as a group – or we can meet them and escort them across.”
Parents can also find the perceived start-up costs in golf to be disconcerting – but that is something that isn’t an issue for juniors at King James as they begin playing.
“Mums and dads think it’s going to be really expensive to start off with, but we can supply junior clubs and then eventually they can buy kit. I get lots of demo clubs adult wise – and cut them down for juniors. Lots of kids outgrow clubs and parents donate them to the club – so I’ve got enough for a big class of juniors to use.”
Despite the challenges, numbers have improved markedly at King James. “When I started – we had ten. And then there was nothing, apart from the odd one or two. Now we’ve got 24 on the Saturday list – six or seven playing regularly on a Sunday – and we’ve got a good number on the Wednesday lessons as well.”
Five of those new juniors are girls – a higher number achieved than many clubs of equivalent size - which is an area that Allan and the club are actively working on growing even further in the coming months.
“I am hoping to establish an all-girls group. From my past experiences at other clubs, girls can get put off by the number of boys in the lessons, so by having an all-girls group they might feel more comfortable. To help create this atmosphere we would invite girls captain Laura Moon down to assist with the lessons, which would be great for encouragement and to give the girls something to aspire to.”
Role-models unquestionably play a huge role in attracting people to the game. Tiger Woods (and now Rory McIlroy) have become idols for young people all across the world, and have certainly encouraged youngsters to take an interest in the sport. However, due to the lack of regular ladies golf on television in the United Kingdom, there is an unfortunate absence of female role-models for girls to be inspired by.
“The girls could do with someone like Tiger or Rory who is cool. And you don’t have much women’s golf on TV. You have likes of Michelle Wie, Charley Hull – girls like that. But that Tiger-era – it made the game a bit cooler. That’s what girls need. Not when they’re six or seven – but when they are 12 or 13 they start going away from golf. Their friends don’t play the game so they go elsewhere. But a role model might attract and help them stay a bit longer.”
It is obvious that Allan places a great deal of importance in role-models for juniors – and not just those superstars who play in the big events on TV – but internally within the club itself.
“One thing I’m really pushing for – we used to play junior league – where you would go to different clubs with a six-man team. I would really love to do that. Try and make them really enthusiastic to get them into that team – and push for it – all wearing the same sweaters – and that is what I would like to have – a team for the other kids to look up to. For a young kid starting out – it’s great. Something to aim for.”
That objective is probably a couple of years away from becoming reality, but it does reaffirm the sense that the junior programme at King James is growing and continuing to be enhanced. The future seems positive. Is that optimism shared by the main architect of it all?
“Definitely. To start off – the first year or so - I thought it was going to be easy – then I found out that it was going to be really difficult. We had to try different things. But the way the group is going just now - the path we have for them to follow – we have a new junior convener – he wants to make Sundays an event – with that I would say that we’re definitely looking good for the future.”
Despite the talk and publicity of nationwide programmes, it is perhaps the quieter and internal efforts of forward-thinking and determined clubs who will drive the levels of junior participation. Certainly, if the recent progress at King James can be replicated elsewhere – then the future of the game may just be bright after-all.
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