The drive to introduce all nine-year-olds to the national game gets farther down the fairway with the roll out of a starter version, says Roddy Mackenzie
Not so long ago, the idea of Primary 5 children swinging golf clubs in the confines of a school gym hall would have sent teachers scurrying for cover.
All that is changing as the Scottish Executive attempts to keep its pledge of ensuring that by 2009 every nine-year-old in the country will have been given at least an introduction to golf. It seemed a lofty ambition when it came in October 2000 but considerable progress has been made.
A new introductory game which can be played indoors or out will be rolled out from April 19 after proving a big hit at primary schools where it has been piloted.
The equipment, developed by educationists in the United States, includes two junior plastic clubs, the "launcher", which is the equivalent of a pitching wedge, and the "roller", which is effectively a putter. Both are weighted, like adult clubs, and have colour-coded grips to ensure they are held properly. The ball is a low-compression tennis ball weighted like a golf ball, and with Velcro targets and simulated tees, youngsters can practise skills that would be used in the full game.
Pupils at Sciennes Primary in Edinburgh have been among the first to get their hands on the clubs and judging by their enthusiasm, the game will catch on fast.
"The children have really taken to it," says headteacher Alice Brown. "It helps with hand-eye co-ordination and gives them the encouragement to take part in different forms of sport.
"We've had the same interest from girls and boys. The children have been really enthusiastic and are always asking 'When can we do golf, Mrs Brown?'
"They do see it as part of the bigger game. Children now are very aware of golf stars through the media. Tiger Woods is a big celebrity in their eyes.
"We don't have any formal links with golf courses but that's something we could develop."
The game is being launched through Clubgolf, a partnership of the Scottish Golf Union, the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association, the Professional Golfers' Association and SportScotland, to develop and implement a junior golf strategy in Scotland.
Clubgolf has developed a website (www.clubgolfscotland.com) to show youngsters what facilities are available in their area.
Alan McMillan, the junior golf manager at Clubgolf, is aware that although it can be easy getting huge numbers of primary children to try a sport, it can be another matter taking that interest a step further. That is why he has been careful to ensure that he does not create an appetite for the game before it can be satisfied.
"One of the things we're trying to do is work with clubs and local facilities first and then come to the schools," he says. "We want to put in the introductory game once the correct mechanisms are in place."
The aim is to give P5 children about six weeks to learn the introductory game and then use real clubs at an outdoor facility.
Near Sciennes Primary is Bruntsfield Links. It has a pitch and putt facility that is ideal for the children to do a level one club golf course and introduce them to true clubs. "We're trying to use just a seven iron and a putter, so there is a natural progression from the introductory game," says Mr McMillan.
Although the introductory game is alluring, he emphasises that children need to be moved on to the next level. Research conducted in New Zealand, Australia and Sweden has shown that children can see mini-golf as a game in itself if they play it for too long and then they do not progress.
"In Edinburgh, the next level would possibly be the Hermitage junior course," he says.
"There is no research that says there is an ideal age to take up golf but in Scotland we are starting at P5 as we want to build up a bank of physical literacy, so that when children do pick up a golf club they have more confidence," says Mr McMillan.
Clubgolf is keen to strengthen school-club links and a pilot scheme in Highland involving local clubs, Tain Royal Academy, Fortrose Academy and feeder primaries has been working well.
"Every golf club in Scotland has the ability to develop level one golf, which means a nine-year-old going along and being delivered a coaching syllabus by a volunteer," Mr McMillan says. "Clubs tend to think you have to build tees and greens for children. You don't.
"If you take a standard practice area with three crudely cut greens with winter holes, which are 6in cups and mats, then you have a three-hole course which is gauged at the ability of the children.
"They will not hit a ball 300-400 yards at nine or 10 years of age."
He says: "We're giving every nine-year-old the opportunity to play golf and it's their choice whether they go to the next level or whether they're happy just with their experience in school." It means that children can make a valued judgment rather than having a perceived opinion.