Green players tee-off on fairway to glory

As East Lothian, the birthplace of golf, hosts the sport's greats, the council is laying foundations for a new generation to follow on, writes Roddy Mackenzie.

As the finest golfers in the world chase a Tiger around Muirfield this weekend for the 2002 Open Championship title, local schoolchildren are pursuing him from a greater distance.

Eldrick "Tiger" Woods is the undisputed world's best but his achievements - the youngest Masters champion ever at the age of 21, one of only five golfers to win all four grand slam titles and he has held all four major titles simultaneously - will lead to more efforts (and finance) being put into golf to create future players in his mould.

From a very early age, Woods was nurtured in the game and has been carefully reared to achieve his current success. It is a model that others will follow and in Scotland it is likely to be no different.

East Lothian Council, with the Open on its doorstep, is taking tentative steps to put woods, irons and putters in the hands of schoolchildren. So far, North Berwick, Gullane and Dunbar golf clubs have been offering introductory lessons to local primary pupils and it is anticipated that other courses will follow. As many as 800 primary children have been targeted. The scheme gives them a first taste of the game and it is hoped they will be encouraged to pursue it further.

Scott Gourlay, the head assistant professional at Dunbar Golf Club, has been coaching six youngsters from Dunbar Primary over the past term.

"I have been working with a small group every week - five boys and a girl - and they are remarkably enthusiastic," he explains. "We have been starting from basics with junior-sized clubs and working on swing, stance and posture. They have really taken to it.

"We have an indoor facility at Dunbar where we can analyse their swing on video and go through what changes they have to make.

"It is helpful to start with a small group as it means you can spend a lot of time ensuring the basics - their grip and stance - are correct. If children get the basics right at eight, then in 10 years' time they have the chance to be very good.

"It is much more difficult for a coach to work with a 30-year-old who is self-taught and has been playing for a number of years as they have picked up bad habits and you have to unteach them before you can teach them.

"It is never too young to start. Tiger Woods took up the game before the age of four and look what he is doing now."

The Golf Foundation, a charity established to develop and promote junior golf, supports the initiative and subsidises the coaching so that costs are not a burden.

Golf can be expensive when it comes to joining clubs and buying equipment. The East Lothian scheme ensures the initial sting is taken out for parents. If youngsters do not want to pursue the game after the first level of coaching, then there has been no significant outlay.

"What we can give them is a good grass-roots grounding. The scheme is subsidised by the Golf Foundation, so it only costs the children pound;1.50 for an hour's coaching. Clubs have been supplied by East Lothian Council and so the expense for the children is kept to a minimum," Mr Gourlay says. "After the lessons, it is then up to the parents to take it on from there as this is designed as only an introduction to the game."

Mr Gourlay acknowledges that golf clubs - as other sports clubs - are having to change with the times and offer junior coaching programmes. "They know it will be of benefit to them in the long term," he says. "I know Dunbar is now offering 30-50 hours of junior coaching a year."

A specially constructed children's golf course at North Berwick is proving hugely popular.

"Many sport bodies have looked at the investment in youth sport in the likes of Australia and seen how it can pay off a few years down the line," Mr Gourlay adds.

There are plans for the East Lothian scheme to run next term and expand from there. It would be a bonus if, 10 or 15 years down the line, Scotland had a player who could come close to Tiger Woods.

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