THE Scottish Executive intends to use schools as part of an unashamedly commercial package in a determined bid to host the Ryder Cup golf tournament in 2009.
The plans envisage that every Scottish child should be introduced to golf by the age of nine. The commitment was announced by Rhona Brankin, the junior minister responsible for sport, as the Executive launched a pound;24 million strategy to promote golf tourism over the next decade, including pound;10m specifically to land the Ryder Cup.
A successful bid for the event is expected to net the Scottish economy at least pound;67m, as well as boosting golf tourism, one of the Executive's target sectors for increasing visitor numbers. It was a major plank of Henry McLeish's economic strategy when he was Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning.
"Golf is immensely popular in Scotland and we can boast the best golf courses in the world," Ms Brankin said. "We want to give every child in this country the opportunity to play golf. Hosting the Ryder Cup in 2009 can help us to achieve that aim.
"We shall extend our existing commitment to golf and to widening opportunities, and introduce every child in Scotland - boys and girls - to the game of golf by the age of nine. That is our 2009 Ryder Cup pledge."
The involvement of youngsters was immediately denounced by Opposition politicians. Brian Monteith, the Conservatives' education and sports spokesman, described it as "a bunker shot".
He added: "Why golf, and not shinty, Highland dancing, tossing the caber or, more seriously, music tuition? This is gesture politics at its most cynical and will make no difference whatsoever to Scotland's Ryder Cup bid."
Irene McGugan, the SNP's sports spokesperson, also pointed to the needs of other deserving sports fr support and investment. "This is a bit of a gimmick and another announcement from the Scottish Executive that is easy to promise but may prove more difficult to deliver."
Charles Raeburn, who chairs the Scottish Schoolsport Federation, reacted cautiously. "It sounds interesting and exciting. But it's not so easy to see how it might be delivered and schools will need the supporting resource. Scotland should promote one of its native games but golf is one of those games that takes a lot of time and it's not so easy to find that time in an overcrowded curriculum."
But Sportscotland, which was involved in drawing up the strategy, made it clear schools would not be the sole means of introducing young children. They were one element in an "exciting partnership" involving the Scottish Golf Union, local golf clubs, the Professional Golf Association and Sportscotland, a spokesman said.
He added that golf was also an appropriate vehicle, especially in its traditional birthplace, for developing children's movement skills as part of a range of abilities they should have. The policy did not imply there was to be an exclusive focus on golf, simply that the Ryder Cup bid offered an opportunity to promote the sport.
Leading Scottish golfers, including Colin Montgomerie and Sam Torrance, also offered their support. "I am delighted that plans have been developed as part of the bid to give so many young people access to the sport," Mr Montgomerie said. "To give them the chance to play golf by the age of nine is the kind of commitment that few other nations can boast."
Golf tourism is worth an estimated pound;100m each year to the economy, with 260,000 visitors playing on courses across the country, and the Executive wants to increase the sport's impact on the pound;2.5 billion tourism industry.
A decision is expected on the winning bid in January.
Leader, page 18