On a par with the boys
SCOTLAND IS to follow a Swedish model in the hope of doubling the number of schoolgirls playing golf.
The number currently playing at under-18 level is a tenth of the number of boys. So clubgolf, the national junior strategy initiated by the Scottish Executive in 2003, aims to redress the balance through the Girls In Golf initiative.
Swedish studies showed that girls were more likely to get involved in the game if they learned during girls-only sessions. There are 22,000 girls playing golf on a regular basis in Swe- den, compared with just 2,700 in Scotland.
A pilot project following a similar approach in Grampian, involving three clubs Alford, Fraser-burgh and Oldmeldrum in 2005, showed a similar scheme could work in Scotland. Now it is being rolled out across the country.
In Grampian, 57 girls started the programme and that rose to 82 last year. Some of the players have improved so much that they can take part in county competitions.
Clubgolf wants to double the number of girls playing golf and has set itself a target of increasing the percentage of female junior club members from 10 in 2003 to 20 within the next few years.
Torquil McInroy, clubgolf project manager, admits there is a lot of work to be done to raise the game's profile, but is convinced that letting the girls go their own way is vitally important. "Girls are less intimidated if they are involved in all-girls' sessions," he says.
"There was not just peer group pressure in terms of ability but in whether playing golf is cool or not. If girls all start together, there is more chance of them continuing with the game as they get older. In some cases, they have dropped interest in the game because they were the only female member at a club.
"We don't expect to double the numbers of junior girl members from 10 to 20 per cent overnight. I don't think there will be a lot of movement on that figure yet as it was based on 12 to 18-year- olds who were members of clubs in 2003.
"The clubgolf programme starts at nine to 10 years of age, so it may be four or five years before you see these players joining clubs."
Audra Booth, clubgolf regional manager for Grampian, adds: "The feedback from the girls at the three Aberdeenshire clubs indicates that they are far more likely to start the game, stay involved and make progress if they begin by learning in a group with other girls."
The clubgolf initiative has been endorsed by some of Scotland's leading players, who took time out from last week's Ladies Open at St Andrews to conduct coaching clinics with budding players.
Curtis Cup golfer Kathryn Imrie, the Scottish schools' champion in 1981 and 1985, is fully behind girls-only sessions. "At that age, it's a good thing to have girls-only sessions, because the boys try and show off. Girls are generally not as competitive as boys," she points out.
"I would think when they are 12 or 13 they will enjoy the mixed sessions better. Initially, it's a great way to start off and get comfortable. Golf is so intimidating anyway if you're not comfortable in your surroundings, you're never going to learn much. It's important to get each group comfortable with each other."
North Berwick's Catriona Matthew, who started playing on the nine-hole children's course in the town to graduate to the world's top 20, admits that the sport has had a problem attracting girls.
"Even when I played as a girl, there were very few girl members," she says. "You can see from the professional game there's not many women coming through compared with other countries, and it's something that is happening in the UK in general, not just in Scotland. It's something that needs to change and it's great to see that clubgolf is making something happen.
"When I went away and played in tournaments, you got to know the other girls who were playing, which made it much more fun. It would be nice to have that at club level, rather than having to go away to get it. If you can get that at a local level it will encourage more and more girls to play.
"The more people you can get playing, the more chance there is you can find people with the talent and produce more top- notch players."