A pound;10 million coaching scheme aims to produce a new generation of golf stars, Roddy Mackenzie reports
Foundations are being laid to fulfil a pledge to put a golf club in the hand of every nine-year-old by 2009. This lofty promise has been made as part of Scotland's bid to host the Ryder Cup that year, and it is not to be taken lightly.
It may well be the most ambitious project ever undertaken in Scottish sport. No one expects the Scottish Football Association to put a ball at the feet of every child in its bid to host the 2008 European Championships. But since Scotland is the home of golf, a system is being put in place to give every child the chance to reach his or her potential in the game.
Whether that stretches all the way to unearthing the next Tiger Woods remains to be seen. Meanwhile, pound;10 million is expected to be invested over the next eight years.
The money will be raised by the Scottish Executive, Scottish Golf Union, Scottish Ladies' Golf Association, the Golf Foundation, Sportscotland and various other sponsors, and overseen by the Scottish Junior Golf Partnership.
Their promises are ambitious. By 2009, for example, it is anticipated that there will be 200 junior golf centres and 56,000 nine-year-olds will be introduced to the game annually.
A "pathway" to progress has been set up, although "fairway" might be a better term. Its tee-to-green structure wil start with a "driving off" element, in which P4-P5 pupils will receive lessons as part of the school curriculum.
The "second shot" will be a skills programme similar to New Zealand's, targeting nine-to 15-year-olds with the emphasis on fun. In the first instance, this will be delivered at golf clubs or driving ranges or at a facility which is specifically for junior golf.
The third strand to the scheme, the "approach shot", is concerned particularly with taking golf lessons into areas where children would have difficulty tapping into the mainstream programme. This would look at giving groups such as the Scouts, the Boys' Brigade and the Girl Guides access to golf as part of their activities.
The fourth strand, or "first putt", will put the most talented youngsters into regional and national coaching programmes, provided they attain a particular handicap by a certain age. This will integrate with the performance programmes of Scottish Golf and allow for additional coaching at local clubs.
Golf was recently added to the Scottish Institute of Sport's programme and the final part of the pathway, "holing out", will give specialist backing to potentially elite players. Ten golfers will be supported financially as they try to go from the junior game to the top amateur and professional levels.
This is the most comprehensive development programme that golf has undertaken in Scotland.
As the Scottish Junior Golf Partnership boasts: "With the Scottish National Golf Centre hailed as a world class facility, and the presence of many of the world's best courses, Scotland is well on the way to having a world-class infrastructure in place."
Junior golf development manager Alan McMillan estimates there will be 50,000 members of the SJGP by 2009 and a further 20,000 a year later.
Some remote areas will pose a challenge, but as a former shinty development officer with Sportscotland, Mr McMillan is prepared for this. "I think we can use the primary schools co-ordinators to help us in that respect," he says.
"The pilot phase has been very successful and there's no reason not to expect every cluster of primary schools to have co-ordinators by 2009. But it's not dependent on that. There are mechanisms set up to still ensure we reach our goal and we're looking at in-service, pre-service and volunteer development.
"I think the only problem is a perception one, with teachers expecting golf balls flying all over the gym. I recently met a group of teachers from Paisley and those fears were eased when they saw that this does not mean teaching the full game to children and there are PVC balls.
"The important thing is to offer youngsters a chance to develop their talent and, if they are not going to make the elite, then they at least get some fun out of the game and maybe play at a local club."