A '90s-style vacation for Bill and Deborah Harlan of St. Helena, Calif., means three days in the Napa Valley with Will, 10, Amanda, 8--and four sets of golf clubs. Like a growing number of families, the Harlans have signed up for a parent-child golf camp this summer. The emphasis will be more on giggles than gamesmanship. "Kids are vulnerable to parents all the time," says Bill, whose 30 handicap suggests no great golf skills. "This levels the playing field."
Parent-child golf camps are part learning vacation, part bonding experience. They've existed since the early 1980s. But they're becoming more popular because of a boom in junior golf, which brought 34% more kids to the links between 1996 and 1997, according to the National Golf Foundation. This year, several dozen parent-child camps will be held around the country. Children must be at least 7 to 12 years old, depending on the camp. Three-day programs cost from $600 to $2,000 per student, while weeklong sessions run $1,000 and up. You can find a list of more than 200 golf camps at www.shawguides.com/golf. Many have mid-June sign-up deadlines, so you'll need to register soon.
Before you go, make sure the golf school offers a true parent-child setup. Many large schools will tell you they do, but really just offer separate sessions for juniors and adults. Ideally, a joint program will keep the adults and children together about half the time, as does the one sponsored by Golf Digest in Sea Island, Ga. (table). It's necessary to split up temporarily because young people and adults learn differently. "Kids learn by seeing it done, and adults learn conceptually," says Rich Marik, director of instruction for Nike Golf Schools, which sponsors 16 three-day camps at 14 locations. "With kids, we don't spend a lot of time talking about how to do it--we just do it."
On a typical day, parents and kids go their separate ways in the morning, when at least three hours are devoted to instruction. Students may spend the time hitting buckets of balls on the driving range as the instructor teaches them about the fundamentals of making the golf ball go long distances. Or they might work on the ever-important short game, practicing getting out of sandtraps, pitching from the deep grass onto the green, or putting. Afternoons, parents and kids may head out to a golf course together, sometimes accompanied by a pro who gives pointers as they play.
PRICEY. Accommodations and meals vary, depending on the program's cost. Rooms at camps under $1,000 per person for two or three days tend to be adequate, but not luxurious. At higher-end camps, students stay at fancy resorts, such as The Cloister in Sea Island. Breakfast, a box lunch, and some dinners may be included.
Golf instructors say that one of the biggest benefits of pairing children with their parents is that they gain a better understanding of each other. "The parent can look like a banana hitting the ball between the legs," says Jay Morelli, head PGA pro at the Golf School, which runs parent-child programs at seven locations throughout New England. A child always remembers how a parent handles failure and learns from that reaction, he adds.
Parents of junior golfers also often become more forgiving critics. "They learn that it's easy to miss three shots in a row--and when it happens, that you shouldn't bite somebody's head off," says Randy Dalton, a PGA pro at the Academy of Golf Dynamics in Austin, Tex. Taking instruction along with a child can be a humbling experience for a grown-up, too, says Larry Gosewehr, director of instruction at Austin's Harvey Penick Golf Academy. "The child will usually get it, and the parent won't."
That was the case for the Harlans during their stay at a Nike camp last summer. Young Amanda didn't attend, but brother Will won the "closest-to-the-pin" contest by smacking a 150-yard tee shot to within five feet of the hole. "I guess my driving improved," he says. What about Dad's game? Not much changed there. But he couldn't have been prouder of his kid.