Golf for $5 or less
What started as the new face of the NCGA’s Foundation is poised to become golf’s next great national program
This article first appeared in the Summer 2015 edition of NCGA Golf
By Jaime Diaz
It’s said that a good golf lesson attends to one problem that automatically fixes three others. If that’s so, Youth on Course, the charitable arm of the Northern California Golf Association, is like a perfect golf lesson.
Golf has one big problem right now- it needs golfers. It may be the greatest game, and does seem to have it all-natural beauty, physical and mental challenge, camaraderie, longevity. But the fact is, the game has been losing its most essential ingredient at an alarming rate.
As a result of a decline in participation, courses are closing at a much faster rate than new ones are opening. Sure there was a golf bubble and an oversupply of courses, but theres’ also data to suggest that golf is losing its long assumed grip among a populace that’s being shifted to and fro in a rapidly changing culture.
Accordingly, golf has never needed young people to play it more.The game needs seeds to the future.
What to do? The NCGA, like a wise golf pro, in 2006 made a little tweak. One that is simple, but addresses and potentially cures so many ills.
Five bucks a round.
The concept is the foundation of Youth on Course. Here’s how it works:
Charitable donations (totaling nearly $10 million over the last nine years) are used to subsidize otherwise unused starting times at public golf courses, allowing youth between 6 and 18 to play 9- or 18-hole rounds for $5 or less. Since 2007, the program has grown to 9,600 card carrying members who have played more than 350,000 subsidized rounds on some 140 courses in Northern California alone. Due to this success, the program this year became operational in six more western states, with members from any state eligible to play all participating courses. Youth on Course has also funded more than $630,000 in college scholarships, 52 paid high school internships in the golf industry, and has some 100 caddies in training. There have been many initiatives local and larger- designed to get kids into golf. But all at some point have been stifled by the reality of expense the average junior golf green fee of nearly $20-that is a real inhibitor to regular play in the formative years. Many participants in The First Tee, especially those that come from underprivileged backgrounds, have a difficult time affording the game or even having a place to play away from a First Tee facility. But five bucks a round gives so many more kids the chance to be golfers, and in the process learn the life lessons the game teaches so well.The purchase of greens fees through charity also helps golf course operators in an era when they need it most. And seeing the contributions work on so many levels–creating golfers, sending kids to college, revitalizing the business of golf-is the satisfaction that philanthropists are looking for.
“Youth on Course performs a hat trick- the kids win, the golf course wins, and the donors win,” says Joe Beditz, CEO of the National Golf Foundation.”It’s the closest among all of golf’s youth initiatives to being a game changer. After seeing the data, I love all aspects of it. It’s a compelling enough program to be national.”
While Youth on Course may seem a brand new Swiss Army knife, it’s really just pulling from the game’s roots. Scotland’s most enduring gift as the home of golf is the simple model of the town-owned nine-hole course with an honor box and annual dues. The outgrowth in America was the muni, where a kid with little more than loose change could be dropped off to spend the day playing, practicing, putting and picking up golf’s rich history and patois. Easy access golf is the game’s street ball, and street ball is any game’s lifeblood. In my conversations over the years with tournament pros and amateurs, the experience of an early start on a modest but affordable course has been a frequent common bond.It could be Mark Calcavecchia routinely playing 45 holes a day on a scruffY sand-green course in Nebraska, or Fred Couples riding his bike to Jefferson Park in Seattle, or young Tiger Woods spending hours at the Heartwell par-3 course in Long Beach. Personally, I got immersed in the game as a boy in the 1960s at what is now Diablo Creek GC in Concord, where I could buy an $11 monthly ticket and play 18 holes for 25 cents. [box] Important Links
But getting kids into playing golf isn’t as easy as it used to be. Between the demands of school, heavily scheduled outside activities and the distractions of new technology, they have less free time than previous generations. Even factoring inflation, the game costs more to play than it used to. Getting a kid to a course can be difficult when more families have two working parents, and parents in general feel a greater need to be present for their children’s activities. It’s no mystery how golf can get elbowed out by modern culture. The First Tee addressed these issues by building some 200 stand-alone facilities around the country, and has been successful in its mission of teaching children life skills through golf. But as the now almost two decade-old program has expanded, it became more clear that for many of its participants and even its graduates, actually getting on courses outside The First Tee still held economic barriers. Youth on Course was focused directly on solving that transition.
“What The First Tee starts, we continue,” says the program’s co-founder Paul Morton.”We want to get more kids on golf courses,which helps grow the game. If that effort produces some competitive golfers, wonderful, and if it produces recreational golfers, equally great. In either case, if we help a kid be better equipped to succeed in life, that’s the win we are after.”
Youth on Course now has a national partnership with The First Tee, providing Youth on Course access to First Tee participants.”The First Tee is an amazing program that teaches life skills and core values using the game of golf as the platform,” said Youth on Course Executive Director Adam Heieck. “We are thrilled to expand The First Tee participants’ experience by offering increased accessibility to golf.” Steve Mona is the CEO of the World GolfFoundation, the organization that, in conjunction with representatives from the USGA, R&A, PGA Tour, PGA of America, LPGA, the European Tour and the Augusta National evaluates, validates and gets the wheels moving on initiatives that will help the game globally. With priorities of player development, growing the game, and diversity, he’s become an important supporter of Youth on Course.
“It has a unique and important niche, and it clearly works,” says Mona. “We are definitely examining it as one of the five initiatives that we will endorse. It allows kids in an increasingly hectic world, to fit golf in when they can and just play. For me that used to be with my friends in the late evenings, and those are some of my fondest and foundational experiences in becoming a golfer.”
In essence, Youth on Course is a throwback, an organized effort by philanthropic lovers of the game to give back so that today’s kids can have the same golden opportunities to become golfers that they did. It’s worked many places, but perhaps on the largest scale at Santa Teresa GC in San Jose. There, PGA instructor Terry Sullivan (under the title of Director of Player Development and Growth of the Game), and his staff coach some 400 kids, all members of Youth on Course.The facility has the advantage of a short 9-hole course that is perfect for junior development, and is located in a populous area. Between its 18-hole course and its short course, Santa Teresa provides some 7,000 rounds a year to Youth on Course members, the most of any facility in the program.
“Youth on Course has definitely changed the whole climate of golf for juniors in this area,”says Sullivan. “The first year, when it lowered the junior green fee from $15 to $5, we almost instantly went from 20 kids in our junior club to 100.Where we used to get maybe 15 kids for our weekly tournaments, now there are close to 80 each time. We’ve also seen a lot of kids from the San Jose First Tee come over to join Youth on Course and play.”
Sullivan takes particular pride in helping produce high-skill players through instruction and weekly tournaments. “We’ve seen our Youth on Course kids making their high school teams, and some going on to play in college, and a couple have even turned pro,” he says.”But no matter how good they get, just playing is a great experience. If you compete in golf, you make very close friendships, and your love for the game tends to be stronger. Naturally, every course has selfish reasons for developing lifelong golfers. But the main thing I see is more kids becoming better people through the game.”
Jim Collins, general manager and PGA professional at San Ramon GC, where more than 2,000 rounds a year funded by Youth on Course are played, has a similar message. “I look at what Youth on Course provides- kids playing a great game in a nice environment where their parents know they’re safe, the whole deal helping the courses and growing the game-it’s a beautiful thing.”
The internship component of Youth on Course, which provides paid jobs for high school students at participating golf courses, is another way to develop future emissaries of the program.
“We are proud to be part of making our industry and the game more diverse by providing some opportunities,”says Tom Smith, general manager at TPC Harding Park, which participates in the internship program and provides Youth on Course rounds on both its courses.
The most recent addition to Youth on Course is the Caddie Academy, started last year. So far, seven private clubs in the Bay Area and Poppy Hills are participating, with kids ranging from eighth graders to seniors in high school. All are committed to caddie on weekends during the school year, and as often as they can during the summer. Club members pay a trained Youth on Course caddie a base fee of S25 a round.Youth on Course matches that $25 in a VISA gift card, and also puts $50 into a college fund for every loop.
In the caddie program at Claremont CC, 2.5 miles from downtown Oakland, the emphasis is on giving some 20 kids exposure to the standards of the game and to the adults who play it. “The goal isn’t to produce lifetime caddies, but individuals whose lives are enriched by the game,” says Claremont assistant professional Morgan Davies. Perhaps Youth on Course isn’t just like a perfect golf lesson. Maybe it actually is the perfect golf lesson–one the rest of the industry should follow.
JAIME DIAZ is Editor-in-Chief of Golf World magazine. Before he joined Golf World, Diaz wrote for The New York Times and Sports Illustrated. He recently collaborated with Hank Haney on “The Big Miss,” which was released in March 2012. He is a San Francisco native.[box] How You Can Help
To help Youth on Course serve additional youth or to support a specific initiative within the program, donate online at youthoncourse.org.
Detailed information on fundraising events, sponsoring a college scholarship and contributing to YOC through your estate plan can also be found on the website or by contacting Executive Director Adam Heieck at (831) 622-8231/
Leaje Morris had a challenging childhood, growing up in a tough neighborhood in Richmond, in a single-parent household. She had never played golf before discovering Youth on Course in 2013.
Now Morris will attend Cal-Berkeley this fall after graduating from high school with a 3.91 GPA, and earning a $14,000 scholarship from Youth on Course that will make her dream possible.
And Morris is the first to recognize that her new love for golf has guided her.
“I have truly become a more focused and considerate person because of the etiquette I was taught while playing golf through the Youth on Course program,” Morris says.”Golf is a sport like no other, it requires high skills,tranquility and dedicated focus. This game has completely changed my approach to this world.”
Morris will even be bringing her golf clubs with her to college. “Youth on Course has increased my desire to play in my free time, and I want to return after college and volunteer with Youth on Course, especially after I become a more experienced golfer in college,” Morris says.
Morris has no ambitions to play professionally, but she loves the way golf connects her with her peers,and can help her pass on the lessons the game has taught her.
“Youth on Course has given me the chance to be surrounded by loads of younger children, and because I am slightly more experienced than most of them, I am given the chance to mentor them and ask them questions about their plans for the future,” Morris says.”This program has allowed me to embrace my role as a leader.
I have also brought this game into my family, and have played several rounds with them, which has helped us to create a stronger bond.” [/box]