Golf organizations and manufacturers have spent millions to draw young people to the game—and create the next generation of golfers. But it might be grade-school gym class that finally changes the math.
The First Tee, a nonprofit organization founded by the PGA Tour, LPGA, Shell Oil, and others and that's devoted to introducing the game to kids, is ramping up its National School Program—an initiative that will incorporate golf into the basic physical-education programs at elementary schools nationwide.
More than 2,000 schools have signed up for the program—which costs $2,800 per school for equipment and teacher training in the basics of golf instruction, rules, and etiquette.
"We want to be where the kids are," says First Tee CEO Joe Louis Barrow Jr. "One of the broad challenges facing the sport is that it's elective. Unlike going outside and tossing a baseball or shooting baskets, you've got to make a commitment to play golf. The National School Program is building a platform to reach more than three million kids. They're exposed to us. I think a strong interest in the game is going to manifest itself."
More than 300 schools are on a waiting list to get the program, which uses kid-friendly clubs with large heads and oversize balls that attach to a Velcro-covered flagstick. The grips on the clubs are pentagon-shaped, with reminder dots to show the correct hand location, and every shot is hit from a rubberized tee and mat that helps a player's alignment.
The golf component was designed to fit seamlessly into the standard phys-ed curriculum developed by the National Association for Sport & Physical Education. Kids get multi-week exposure to basic golf movements, rules, and etiquette, just as they do in basketball or kickball.
Count the kids who are projected to be introduced to the game through the National School Program—3.5 to 4 million in 4,000 schools by 2010—with the 1.2 million who already participate in programs at The First Tee's 202 chapters and 547 learning facilities nationwide, and it's easy to see why Barrow is more optimistic than many about the sport's future.
"We're building a generation of players who are going to contribute a tremendous amount to the golf economy," Barrow says.
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