Scotland is in danger of being left behind on international greens unless more children take up golf. Roddy Mackenzie reports.
The fact that Scotland can produce world-class golfers is not open to dispute, but whether the home of golf is serving classroom players is another matter. Scotland has perhaps taken the sport's future for granted.
The average age of golfers in this country is about 55 (and getting older), though golf is said to be the biggest participation sport in Scotland after football, if recreational walking and swimming are discounted. Yet how many schoolchildren are playing the game regularly? That is a question the Scottish Golf Union is currently addressing.
Preliminary discussions are understood to have taken place at the highest level within the SGU to create a structured development plan which will have primary schoolchildren taking up golf clubs. Until now, although there have been pockets of activity at school level, with professionals giving lessons, it has been sporadic and lacking in structure.
The secretary of the SGU, New Zealander Hamish Grey, was surprised that a country which is proud to be the home of golf does not have any safeguard in place to provide a future generation of players. "We need to get a modified version of the game for schoolchildren so that they are encouraged to play at an early age," he says.
"In New Zealand, we had kiwi golf and in Australia there is gogo golf, which target primary schoolchildren. The games are skills-based and involve fun learning, where the hole is a hula hoop and there are smaller clubs and a soft ball. The parents and teachers are the child's first coach.
"Something like that in Scotland is long overdue."
Mr Grey is adamant that linking schools with local clubs is critical to the success of any venture and he believes golf clubs are starting to heed the importance of letting junior players join. He cites Royal Dornoch, where annual junior membership costs just pound;3, which includes 10 lessons from a professional. If the coaching is not taken up, membership is forfeited.
"There are things happening in schools but it has generally been on an ad hoc basis and depended on individual professionals. Teaching young players has never been the most lucrative for professionals," Mr Grey continues.
"There is a lot of good work going on. We just need to get it more structured and work in a coach accreditation scheme so that young players can progress in the game and reach their potential.
"Whether that potential is to cut a handicap from 14 to 12, or to become the next Colin Montgomerie (Scotland's seven-ties European champion and world No 3) or Janice Moodie (who recently turned professional), does not really matter as long as the pathways are there for players to reach the level they desire.
"Every country needs role models for young players and we have that in Scotland with the likes of Paul Lawrie (the British Open champion). But the fact that he won the Open was more down to his own hard work and initiative.
"Generally speaking, in this country a youngster will take up golf if he has been introduced to the game through a parent or relative, and we want to give everyone a chance."
Kiwi golf was started in New Zealand in the late 1980s as part of an initiative in 20 sports to help combat the decline in volunteer coaches and government cutbacks. It was similar to the situation here after the teachers' dispute, when Team Sport Scotland was set up by the then Scottish Sports Council (now Sportscotland). It was seen in New Zealand as a fresh start and the chance to put a proper framework in place. Now, a staggering 95 per cent of primary schools in that country play golf and it can only be a matter of years before this begins to influence the professional game.
Mr Grey points out that Canada also has a sophisticated scheme that targets the coaching of young players.
Scotland is in danger of being left behind. That is why the SGU is looking at initiatives. "Players are not getting any younger here," says Mr Grey, "and soon, because of the fall in the birth rate, we are going to have 15 per cent fewer 15-year-olds to choose from.
"We have a good quality coaching structure in place through our professionals but we need a plan so we can build for the future."
Mr Grey does not accept that golf is an expensive game to take up. Many clubs, such as Royal Dornoch, offer cheap rates and lessons for young players. And if the SGU does offer a mini-version of the game, which seems likely given the success of the New Zealand and Australian models, then it could import equipment coming on to the market in the United States.
"The beauty of golf is that it is a game you can play for life and I've no doubt the talent is there," says Mr Gray.
Certainly there was plenty of talent on show at the Scottish Schoolboys' and Schoolgirls' Championships, sponsored by the Royal Bank of Scotland, and held respectively at Longniddry and Kilspindie. The boys' event was won by 15-year-old Kirkcudbright High school pupil Ben Shamash, who had rounds of 71 and 77 strokes in windy conditions. Dunfermline High's Louise Kenney, aged 17, won the girls' title by five strokes with rounds of 77 and 83.