Scotland's golf greens are turning gold and every boy and girl is to be given the chance to try the game by the age of nine. Roddy Mackenzie reports on initiatives to bring on junior players
Golf has won Government approval. Among Rhona Brankin's last duties as deputy minister of sport before moving to rural affairs, she pledged pound;24 million to the development of the game over the next nine years as Scotland bids to host the 2009 Ryder Cup.
"Golf is immensely popular in Scotland and we can boast the best golf courses in the world," she told a press conference to mark the Ryder Cup bid. "We shall extend our existing commitment to golf and to widening opportunities to introduce every child in Scotland - boy and girl - to the game by the age of nine."
It is questionable how realistic such a pledge is when some golf clubs do not allow children under the age of 12 on to their courses. However, Hamish Grey, secretary of the Scottish Golf Union, says there are already developments in place to try to ensure that the vision of 2009 becomes a reality, even if the Ryder Cup bid is unsuccessful.
"It is not really appropriate in many cases for eight or nine-year-olds to go out on a golf course," says Mr Grey. "If anything, playing the full game too early can turn them off the game. But what we are talking about is giving primary schoolchildren experience of golf and providing stepping stones for them to progress to the full game.
"There are opportunities for them to go to driving ranges, play on shortened holes and practise putting and chipping without playing a full round of golf.
"At what age a youngster plays his first full game is really up to the individual and his rate of progress. We have some under-14 players now who are very talented and playing off handicaps of three or four. They could already do well in senior competition.
"Sometimes you can have an 11-year-old whose skill level is higher than that of a 14-year-old. It's all down to individual development, but it all levels out by the time they get to adulthood."
Mr Grey emphasises that one of golf's priorities over the next few years is developing young talent. The signs are encouraging, with Scotland winning the European Boys' Team Championships this year and finishing runners-up in the European Youths' Team Championships.
"We are looking at Scottish golf's needs going into the new millennium. Clearly, the key element is junior development and the health of our clubs," Mr Grey says, pointing out that there have been a number of initiatives recently; even the elite clubs are doing their bit to encourage young players.
For example, the SGU has formed a partnership with Loch Lomond Golf Club, whereby the club allocates a "significant number" of tee times over the year to be sold t golf club members around the country at a subsidised rate. This gives golfers the opportunity to play on a world-class course and all the money raised is ploughed into junior golf. In the past year, pound;30,000 has been raised.
"It has allowed additional coaching to be provided in rural areas to ensure that juniors are given the same opportunities as elsewhere," explains SGU president Colin Wood. It is estimated that 3,000 boys and girls have benefited directly from the scheme.
Another development is the BP Skills Test Championship. Golf clubs in Scotland were offered the chance to send 10 junior players to the Scottish National Golf Centre at Drumoig, in Fife, for a day's coaching at a greatly reduced rate. Each club was then asked to nominate one youngster to take part in a skills test competition and, after a series of heats, 11 youngsters qualified for the finals last month. Edward Shannly, a fourth year pupil at Linlithgow Academy and a member of Linlithgow Golf Club, was the overall winner.
With backing from Sportscotland's Sportsmatch scheme, which doubled BP's financial commitment, Mr Grey estimates that some 2,500 young players benefited from the initiative this year.
The Bank of Scotland Junior Masters, which is open to boys and girls, has been another successful target for improving young players, with 80 competitors taking part in the tournament in Gleneagles in September. The 10 best players were then invited for tuition at the Scottish National Golf Centre earlier this month.
"What we are trying to do now," says Mr Grey, "is pull all these schemes together so that we have stepping stones right the way from primary school to full golf.
"The setting up of the Scottish National Golf Centre in July 1999 has been a great benefit as it has given youngsters access to world-class facilities and I estimate that 5,000 junior players have come through the doors this year."
It is clear that golf clubs must play a significant role if the game is to flourish at youth level. However, Mr Grey believes there are opportunities for youngsters to play the game and there are signs that those will increase.
"I think it will surprise a lot of people to know that 50 per cent of golf clubs do not have waiting lists and, with clubs looking to regenerate themselves, they are having to go to the market rather than the market coming to them.
"Clearly, there are differences geographically and clubs in the far north are not likely to be as busy as the ones in central Edinburgh, for example. Clubs in areas such as Golspie and Tain are more likely to give 12-year-olds access to their facilities.
"There are new golf courses opening all the time and, with 530-plus courses now in Scotland, few sports can boast such facilities," he concludes.