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Junior Golf
It's never to young to teach him to swing.
Here's how and where.

By Larry Olmsted
(7/19/00)


If you're thinking that this is the summer for your son or daughter to learn the game of golf, it's time to get moving, because a couple of million other parents have the same idea.

The sport has been enjoying a resurgence, especially among kids, since Tiger Woods, really a kid himself, won the Masters to launch what has become the fastest career rise in the history of the game. Poised, confident, and articulate, Woods is a figure parents can relate to, and many have started thinking maybe their precious junior is the next Tiger Woods. But remember, he started playing when he was three.

As Tiger Fever, fueled by the emergence of teen stars like Sergio "El Nino" Garcia a slew of Australian phenoms, keeps spreading, junior golf camps have sprung up everywhere, and resorts, clubs and golf destinations are getting into the act as fast as they can print up brochures. But it's not fast enough for many anxious parents. "I think that junior golf clinics all over the country, both at private and municipal clubs, will be full this summer," said Larry Hayes, director of golf at the Trophy Club Country Club outside of Dallas, TX. Hayes has been teaching children the game for well over a decade, and is the co-author of The Junior Golf Book.

The sole purpose of the Family Golf Association, a non-profit organization, is to promote golf as a family activity. Why golf? "No other sport or activity bridges the gap between age and ability as easily," claims their literature. "On the golf course, every member of the family is on equal ground. You can be eight or eighty...male or female...a novice player or a low handicapper...and still enjoy playing the game together."

The National Golf Foundation estimates that ninety percent of golfers learn from their family or friends, and if you play golf, you can understand what an advantage it is to start at an early age. Golf is probably the most difficult sport to master, and the later you begin the harder it is. Fortunately, children are not handicapped by all the thoughts adults have running through their heads at address and during the backswing, and they are not trying in vain to hit the ball three hundred yards or carry impossible second shots over water, the way wiser, more experienced adults do. They will have plenty of time for throwing tantrums and breaking clubs when they are grown up, so now is the best time for them to learn how to play, and more importantly, learn to enjoy the game.


Send him away to Golf Camp

Woods has shepherded a new generation of golfers onto the courses, and his main sponsor, Nike, is riding the wave by greatly increasing the golf offerings of their Nike Sports Camps, run by a national company called US Sportscamps. They offer several different types of camps, including day camps, week long resident camps, and parent-child camps, where adults and children enjoy each other's company while improving both their levels of play. The camps will be offered nationwide throughout the summer (800-NIKE-CAMP).

For serious aspiring pros, the Golf Academy of Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina, offers a boarding high school program which combines a regular academic schedule with an emphasis on competitive golf, including student play on the Junior Golf Tour (800-925-0467). The best and brightest look to David Leadbetter, swing guru to the pros, Leadbetter is best known for his long working relationship with multiple major winner Nick Faldo, although the two have since parted ways. He also instructs Greg Norman, Ernie Els and Nick Price. Leadbetter operates a full-blown junior academy where students live and learn on a full-time basis in Bradenton, FL, and his students include top US and international junior players (888-633-LEAD, www.leadbetter.com). Another celebrity golf instructor is Jim McLean, teacher of numerous tour players, including Brad Faxon, senior tour dynamo Dana Quigley and former US Open champion Liselotte Neumann. Besides writing seven golf books including the popular power bible, The X Factor Golf Swing, McLean operates junior clinics at the Doral resort in Miami, and is very active in Florida's junior golf programs and leagues (800-723-6725, www.JimMcLean.com).


Teaching Tricks at Home

If you aren't ready to spring for a high-end golf camp, Hayes' Junior Golf Book is a good place to start. He emphasizes parents working with their children, not just sending them off to clinics and letting them learn on their own. "I wanted to write something comprehensive, that wasn't too complicated, that would help parents to help children." His specific recommendations include:

Start with the right equipment: Old adult clubs can be cut down in size and regripped for kids. Hayes recommends that children 2-5 play with ladies clubs, which are lighter, and use just one iron and a putter that have been severely shortened. In addition, he emphasizes readjusting the lie to flatter, as adult clubs are too upright for children to hit easily. From 6-10, they can add a wedge, two more irons and a three wood, which should still be ladies clubs and still may need to be shortened. At 11-14, round out to a near full set of ladies clubs, probably standard length, and at around fifteen, junior boys should be ready to play with a full men's set.

One other important lesson that Hayes offers is one that few adults seem to grasp, the relative importance of different shots. Go to a driving range and sign up for your first golf lesson, and you will inevitably begin hitting shots off of the tee, with either an iron or wood. The pro will explain the grip, stance, weight shift, rotation, wrist hinge, unhinge, etc, thoroughly confusing the new student. Hayes suggests working backwards, starting the child with putting, the most important stroke in golf. Not only do putts affect your score more than any other shot, but putting is a simpler stroke, far easier to understand. This gets the children interested in the game, and familiar with the concept of ball striking. Next, they learn the chip and run, which teaches them both the short game, and helps them develop the basics of the swing. Next they move up to full swing iron shots, and finally woods.

Many private and public clubs now offer special instruction for children. In addition, many organizations or municipalities provide free or low cost clinics for youngsters eager to learn the game. It may be tempting to try to teach your son or daughter yourself, but remember, in golf it is much easier to learn than unlearn, and most adult lessons and schools are devoted to correcting flaws that already exist in their game. For kids, it is worth doing it right the first time, and learning from an experienced professional. Not all teaching pros are good with kids, so ask questions about their previous teaching experience. Then you can do your part by spending quality time playing golf with your children, something that you can continue to do once you are both grown ups. Your child may not be the next Tiger Woods, but they can learn a fun and rewarding game that they will able to play for the next seven or eight decades.





Larry Olmsted lives in Vermont and writes frequently about travel and golf.






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