Golf is like measles, say the coaches, best caught young. A perhaps unlikely institution which took this expression seriously now finds itself with the first all-encompassing golf studies course in the country.
With the gradual decline in demand for farming courses and the boom in golf in the late 1980s Merrist Wood College, a specialist agricultural centre in Surrey, saw an opportunity. In 1992 the college put together the first HND in golf with Kingston University and the Professional Golfers' Association.
Capitalising on the phenomenal success of the higher national diploma, from which nearly 100 per cent of students left to immediate employment, Merrist Wood enrolled 20 students between the ages of 17 and 25 last week on an improved National Diploma in Golf Studies.
John May, senior course manager, said the new course builds on the strengths of the HND but reflects a more vocational approach, and is one the college can develop in tandem with the growing market.
"In Britain there is a strong amateur ethos and we anticipate that in 10 years time there will be huge demand for more accessible places to play golf, " he said. "There is also a huge women's market out there which we have been very slow to tap. That is where we start to come in."
After informal consultation with the golf industry Merrist Wood proposed a course covering everything from green-keeping to retailing to golf course design, as well as improving playing techniques.
"We are not here to train professional players," said Mr May. "Very few are actually good enough. We are here to train students in an industry called golf."
Over the next two years the students will study every conceivable aspect of the game. "Parts of the course involve business management in golf, other parts, the science and psychology. Some parts are unique to the game," said Mr May.
Keen players with a sound academic background and a realistic approach were chosen from a group of around 100 who applied for the 1995 course.
"We will be pushing them for a high standard of achievement," said Mr May. Almost all of the recruits dream of being professionals but the course will show them other options. "There are around 2,500 golf courses in the British Isles, not to mention the money to be made in retailing," Mr May said. "Our students come to us only knowing golf as a game but we get them to see it as a business."
Being trained to work for a sport they all love is what appealed to the successful applicants. "Because we can't all be professionals, this gives us a chance to work in another area, which is why the course is good," said Mark Sherville, 17, from Sussex.
Golf needs more promotion and should be taught in schools, the students say. Marco Amat, 17, from Bournemouth, who would like to teach abroad, said: "Young people need more encouragement. In America they start when five years old. Lots of people would love to do a course like this."
The college says it will not exploit the popularity of the course by over-recruiting. "Many universities overkill by training people for jobs which do not exist," Mr May said. "There is something highly corrupt about that. Expansion has to be extremely careful."
Although the college has plans to become the European centre for all golf-related training, it aims to retain its reputation as a centre of excellence in its founding subjects, agriculture and horticulture.
Merrist Wood, set up as the Surrey Farm Institute after the Second World War to train students in food production and careers, now has more than 1,000 students on courses in equine studies, garden design, and floristry and has won 11 gold medals for displays at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Plans for an 18-hole golf course are underway, but making use of 600 acres as the demand for agricultural courses declined has been difficult, said John Riddle, the college principal.
He said: "If we cannot survive in a more competitive environment, we have no business training people who have to go out and face it for themselves. "