Golf is often mischaracterised as an old-fashioned boys’ club, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. There are plenty of opportunities for children and young people to break into the sport and reap its many benefits. We spoke with Lee Dolby, Young People Manager for England Golf, to find out how they’re correcting this perception and getting more young boys and girls involved in the game.
How do you go about safeguarding children when they play golf, and how vital is this to their development?
Making sure young people feel safe in their environment is really important, so we’ve developed a scheme called SafeGolf. This is an accreditation for clubs and coaches that implements a framework of standardised policies and procedures to ensure the safety and welfare of children involved in golf. It’s recognised by parents, so when they see a club or coach carrying the SafeGolf accreditation, they’ll have peace of mind that their child is well looked after.
What’s your typical approach to mentoring young golfers? For example, does your feedback have to be more considered than if you were training an adult golfer?
Communication to all participants should be considered, so young people are no different. Everybody is motivated in different ways – one style is not going to fit all.
We’ve developed quite a lot of research recently, which we provide to the PGA professionals and golf clubs mentoring and developing young golfers. This shows that not everybody is motivated by, say, dropping handicap or developing new skills. Sometimes, it’s the social aspect of the game that they really enjoy, so we’re keen to identify the different ways young golfers are motivated.
Each PGA professional goes through an intense programme to equip them with the skills to mentor any golfer with any motivation, so from our perspective there is no typical approach. You need to look at the individual in front of you and make sure you’re providing the kind of information, service and experience they need to help them achieve their goals, because not everybody’s goals are the same.
So you find you get multiple personas, and you have to tailor your approach to suit that?
Exactly. We actually did some comprehensive research called Understanding Your Junior Market. Through this, we identified seven different profiles of a young golfer – from competitive, to more creative or sensitive.
This told us what each of them wanted from the sport, and how they’ve engaged with it in the past. We then gave this information to golf clubs, so they could address whether they were appealing to these types of motivators, and could work out how to cultivate interest if not.
You have certain archetypes of people that you need to cater for within every sector of every sport, and we’ve been able to distil that within the young people’s market.
How do you keep children engaged and interested in learning golfing techniques?
Without doubt, fun is top of the list every single time. There’s a perception of elite play in golf, with the handicap being very important to people, but when you talk to young people it’s more about fun than recognition.
However, what’s fun for me might not be for somebody else, and we make sure that clubs understand the range of things that constitute fun. For some, competitions will be fun, but for others they could be a huge worry.
If we can focus on fun, reward, and recognition as much as we focus on skills and drills, then we will keep them engaged.
The way we can understand what young golfers find fun and what constitutes reward and recognition is to talk to them. We’re very strong advocates for clubs consulting with their junior sections to make sure that they’re meeting their needs.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in training children and how have you overcome these challenges?
The biggest challenge is perception. If somebody has the perception of golf being a boring game for old men, they’re never going to experience it. Perception builds participation and participation starts to build membership and life-long involvement in the sport. Therefore, it’s vital we disprove certain perceptions around golf.
Through our research, we identified quite a lot of those perceptions, which we probably knew anecdotally but now have supporting data for. These include things like expense, whether the sport represents someone’s community, whether it’s relatable, and how time consuming it is.
The reality is, lots of golf clubs offer value for money. Membership is incredibly cheap for young people, and the sport is so much more than your traditional 18-hole competitions. There are driving ranges, pitch and putts, GolfSixes – you name it.
If we can really challenge perceptions of golf and get people to understand what the modern game is like, hopefully that will enable us to engage more young people.
Have you noticed an increase in the number of young girls playing golf? How important is it for young girls in particular to play golf?
Hugely so. We identified several years ago the importance of making sure there was a better gender balance within the sport, and our Growing the Game of Golf in England strategy aims to increase female participation from 15% to 20% by 2021. We’re up to 17% to 18% as things stand, so we’re well on the way.
This growth has come from making a concerted effort to understand the female market, and what barriers there are to their participation. We provide information to clubs to help them broaden their appeal and have created things like female-only sessions to make the sport as accessible as possible.
Our junior girls’ programme, Girls Golf Rocks, is also growing around the country. I think the growth from that is starting to break down outdated perceptions.
Last week was actually Women & Girls’ Golf Week in the UK and Ireland. This is a massive campaign we run each year to help break those perceptions, and sees support from local golf clubs, the European Tour, the R&A, and the Greenkeepers’ Association, amongst others.
It isn’t only about highlighting female participation as golfers, but as managers, green staff, and committee members. Ensuring female representation is a huge part of what we’re about as an organisation, and something we’re driving forwards.
Do you have any stats to hand about the number of children in the UK that play golf? If so, can you explain them in more detail and outline your long-term targets?
While conducting research for our Growing the Game For the Future plan, we found that across the UK 67% of young people have played some form of golf. If you took that sample in England, that’s 5.35 million young people picking up a golf club in a year.
A huge majority of that is obviously crazy golf once a year at the seaside, or a one-off at a putting green or driving range, but when we dug a little deeper we saw that 1.65 million people went one step further.
They might have got involved in their school’s games or gone to a golf club and had a taster session, so what we’re seeing is that participation in golf among young people is growing, but membership is either flatlining or on the decrease.
There are around 46,000 junior members of golf clubs nationwide, so a huge number of young people are experiencing it in different ways. The traditional measure of club membership is no longer the only metric we use to assess the health of the game. What we’re trying to do is understand how people participate beyond that.
Our aim is to increase that 1.65 million, but it doesn’t always have to be driving towards getting a handicap and playing in competitions and being a club member, though that is critical for the long-term health of the sport.
With the schools holidays going on at the moment, how are you raising awareness among kids and getting them to play golf?
We work a lot with partners across the industry to raise awareness of our products and programmes. There are many programmes a club could access to help them deliver an offer for their summer activities or after-school clubs, so we identify the strongest ones and support the clubs to fit them within their business models.
We work closely with organisations like the Golf Foundation, Golf Access, and Factory Eleven GolfParc. These organisations provide various initiatives and products that can be used to engage young people.
Last year, we engaged with 1300 clubs to talk to them about their provision, and many of those meetings will have included junior offers, the level of support for young people, and retention strategies.
It’s not a case of throwing initiative after initiative at it. We’re all about having a long-term, sustainable impact on the sport, rather than having peaks and troughs.
What do you consider to be the main benefits of playing golf to children?
The wonderful thing about golf is it’s a sport for everybody – it’s not necessarily relevant to your fitness levels or athletic prowess. You can play a game based on your own abilities and your own strengths.
There’s a lot of evidence for the health benefits of golf too, both physically and mentally. You’re stretching, you’re mobile, and if you’re playing 18 holes you’re walking four to six miles, which meets the government guideline of 10,000 steps per day.
It also allows you to spend time with friends and family, destress, and enjoy an activity out in the natural world, which is strongly linked to mental wellbeing.
Golf also teaches respect, resilience, determination, and fair play – they’re built into the sport from the rules to the ethos. The key for us is to maintain relevance to young people within that, and not trap ourselves in tradition.
We also want to highlight the leadership skills, confidence, and employability golf can give young people. We work with a group of young ambassadors who’ve emphasised these benefits, and discussed what golf has given back to them, some of which have used golf as an outlet to deal with disabilities like autism.
What advice would you give to any parents reading this who are keen to get their children involved in playing golf?
Go for it. The opportunity to take part might start at crazy golf or putting at the seaside – don’t just think of golf as that 18-hole experience. Make sure you focus on the enjoyment side of things and don’t push your kids into anything they’re not ready for.
Go down to your local club for more information, because the PGA professional or junior organiser there will be able to recommend lots of groups they can get involved with. There’ll be a real social element to that as well.
Also, think about learning together. If you’re not already a golfer, it’s the perfect opportunity. Golf can be played intergenerationally – you can have child, parent, and grandparent on the same course on the same day, all playing together. There aren’t many other sports you can do that with.