Experts are offering golf coaching to primary pupils in the drive to have more children play, writes Roddy Mackenzie
The national search for future Scottish golf stars will be intensified over the next few months as primary schoolchildren are targeted for coaching, starting with P5s.
Last year, almost 1,000 secondary pupils took part in a coaching scheme which offered all local authority schools with school sports co-ordinators access to top-quality instruction at the National Golf Academy at Drumoig in Fife. The scheme has now been extended to include primary schools, with local authorities involving their active primary school co-ordinators.
With the Scottish Executive having publicly stated that they want to put a golf club in every nine-year-old's hands by 2009, there is confidence that such an ambitious target can be met.
Starting this month, 150 tuition sessions have been planned for schoolchildren; 50 of those have been earmarked for primary pupils. They are being offered half a day of coaching in groups of 10 at the academy.
Not only will they receive tips on how to play, but they will also be given advice on diet and fitness. Given the interest already, the sessions are likely to be over-subscribed.
Clubgolf, a partnership between the Scottish Golf Union, the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association and Sportscotland, is overseeing the project and developing a national junior golf strategy. A key part of that will be using the school sports co-ordinators.
Twenty three of the 26 secondary schools in Highland took advantage of the last offer of coaching because they were centrally co-ordinated, but schools from other areas mostly travelled on an individual basis.
Scottish Junior Golf manager Alan McMillan (who plays off a handicap of eight) sees his priority over the next few years as "getting the children to the right places with the right people in the right environment". He has taken on board the work on coaching children by Dr Istvan Balyi, the Hungarian athlete who defected to Canada at the 1976 Olympics. Dr Balyi is anxious to prevent promising young sports players suffering burn-out through too much play and so not reaching their full potential in their field.
Dr Balyi's work has been used by Sportscotland and the Scottish Football Association, among others. But since he helped the little-known Mike Weir win the US Masters for Canada last month, his golfing expertise is of particular importance.
There was concern in Scottish golf coaching circles that children were being introduced to golf too late, when there is a need to develop basic skills at a young age to develop "physical literacy".
Dr Balyi, addressing a conference of 40 coaches in Scotland last year, emphasised that it takes an average of 10 years' training for an athlete to reach his or her talent level. He recommends that basic core skills are developed at a young age to enable an individual to specialise in more complex sports skills, such as those needed for golf, he says.
"Youngsters develop at different ages," Mr McMillan points out. "A child at the age of 12 may be at a physical age of 14 or 10. The players who are coming to the fore at that age may not be the ones that eventually come through and we have to take care not to overlook late developers.
"There is a lot of testing at Dundee University and St Andrews University about basic physical attributes - running, jumping and throwing - and what is best suited for different sports. The great thing about golf is that youngsters can go off and do another sport and then come back and play golf.
"There is an element of talent identification but there is also a strong participation element. We want to cater for youngsters who may just want to become club golfers, like myself."
Clubgolf is putting the building blocks in place. It was recently announced that Willie McKay will be the regional development manager in the Highlands and by the summer it is anticipated there will also be development managers for the west of Scotland, central region, Grampian, Tayside and the east of Scotland.
Each manager will have specific tasks and cover specialist areas such as girls' golf, talent identification, club development and education.
Curriculum and extra-curriculum golf will be looked at: while there are cases of golf professionals going into schools to offer instruction, it is hoped that teachers and volunteers from golf clubs will also coach children as Clubgolf seeks to spread the game's appeal.
While there have been calls for more children's golf courses throughout the country - such as North Berwick and Brucefields in Stirling - Mr McMillan believes more can be made of existing club facilities. "It might not be a case of building a lot of new courses. In many cases the facilities are already there, in that some clubs have practice facilities which could be turned into three or four holes for children," he says.
"We need to look at what other countries are doing and get the clubs to take things on board."
It is also important for Scotland to hold on to its best youth players once they leave school, he says. In the past, some have taken golf scholarships elsewhere, particularly at American universities, but Mr McMillan is hopeful that a growing number will stay here.
"St Andrews, Stirling and Dundee universities are all offering scholarships which are very highly rated," he concludes.
"The one thing we don't have here is decent weather all year round but we have the best courses in the world."