Unexpected benefits are driving the success of golf in primary schools. Bernard Adams takes a look
Please can we have our own golf course sir? Golf? In primary schools? With hard balls and even more lethal clubs in small playgrounds? Impossible!
Not so - as dozens of schools up and down the country are proving by taking advantage of the Golf Foundation's well-funded initiative in primaries.
The key to this rapid development over the past five years has been tri-golf, a highly-versatile and - key factor - safe version of the game.
It involves lightweight clubs with big heads, sponge-rubber balls of varying density, and a number of different types of target.
Tri-golf was designed to be used in almost any environment - assembly halls, hard playgrounds or grassy areas. It does the business for teaching striking skills - particularly balance, control, body movement and handeye co-ordination.
The reason it's taking off in some schools - notably in Birmingham - is that it can become much more than just one more piece of kit used in PE.
Rednal Hill Primary, in south Birmingham, is a good example. It helps that the head, Graham Catt, is a golf enthusiast and a PE specialist, but his school has a higher than average level of deprivation and golf did not figure much in the lives of either parents or pupils until recently.
"I was aware that at break-times the boys did football or nothing and the girls netball or nothing and neither were playing the traditional playground games any more," he says.
So in 2000, when he noticed that tri-golf sets were available for pound;150 on a Golf Foundation flyer, he got one. "One day the children were using it and they asked for a PE hoop, and then another, and soon we had a triangular, three-hole course," he explains. "We're lucky in that we have reasonable-sized grounds - big enough for one-and-a-half football pitches.
"So it didn't take long to set up nine holes around the perimeter of the pitches. An experienced local groundsman came in and helped us to cut the fairways two metre wide, turn an old long-jump pit into a bunker and add some trees. The longest hole is around 70 metres.
"What has developed is virtually a golf club run by the children. They helped design their own score cards, they book at break for their lunchtime rounds and compete for monthly medals.
"We have an Open where other schools come and compete. The girls are just as keen as the boys, and they tend to play and score properly in the lunchtime rounds while the boys just have fun," says Graham.
The Golf Foundation, based in Hertfordshire, looks after the development of golf in schools. "Very few state schools had much to do with golf until recently," says the Foundation's press officer, Ben Evans. "And clubs haven't been very accessible to young golfers. So tri-golf provides a vital way into the skills of the game."
Development manager, Brendon Pyle, says the Foundation has already introduced half a million children to tri-golf. "Teachers who are non-golfers find that they can use it very easily. I think it has changed the perception of golf as a game," he says. Although it's not yet on the national curriculum, he sees it as having all sorts of benefits - in maths and social education, for example.
Graham Catt, at Rednal Hill, five years down the road with tri-golf, is certain about the latter. "Taking turns, being safe, managing the game themselves (there's no referee), being honest and coping with both winning and losing - that's a great deal to learn from a simple lunchtime activity," he says.
Big money, more than pound;2m this year, is now going into realising "2020 vision" - a masterplan for English golf created by all the major bodies in the English game, combining as the Golf Partnership. The plan aims not only to produce more high-quality players but also increase participation in a sport with many health benefits.
"Start, stay, succeed" are the triple aims of the cradle-to-grave blueprint. Research has shown that the best golfers in the world over the past 80 years began before they were 10. So it's clear how vital a part this primary school initiative can play in starting future champions as well as lifetime enthusiasts.
The "stay" part of the programme is more difficult. Golf is not exactly a priority in secondary schools, so the Foundation is addressing this with a new programme called Golf Extreme, which is a more advanced form of tri-golf. Unsympathetic golf clubs can also be off-putting for juniors.
Members often didn't want young people hacking up the course or not observing etiquette. In the Staffordshire area the Golf Foundation has made successful efforts over the past two years to get clubs and schools to work together. One club which has been particularly helpful is Chase Golf Club near Stafford. Craig Thomas is the assistant professional in charge of juniors. "Clubs are having to realise their future lies in their juniors.
We deliver free coaching in local schools, thanks to the Golf Foundation; we have a pound;49 junior membership for the six weeks of the summer holidays; and when they come we give them access to all practice areas."
Golf is on the move. One remarkable fact highlights this: many municipal courses in Birmingham now offer free rounds to under-11s playing with an adult.
* The Golf Foundation Tel: 01920 876200
Rednal Hill School, tel: 0121 453 2520