Turning golf into a game all can play

Jennai Cox

Teaching golf to the Dutch, the Spanish and the Maltese pales in comparison with becoming the first person assigned the task of getting more British children on to the links.

Michael Haines, a 36-year-old professional golfer for 20 years, describes becoming Britain's first youth golf development officer as "the most exciting thing I've ever done".

Mr Haines is heading a three-year pilot scheme to attract more youngsters to golf, and keep them playing. The initiative is based in Brighton and is supported by the Golf Foundation with part-funding from the Sports Council.

"Golf clubs have traditionally been seen by kids as places they cannot visit, so they don't tend to get involved," Mr Haines says. "We need to get across the message that golf is for everyone, the more the merrier."

Two years ago, when the Sports Council was producing a review of golfing facilities nationally, Brighton council was doing its own assessment of how to make the game more accessible.

"We decided we wanted to target young boys and girls," said Steve Dickson, leisure services contracts manager for Brighton council. "The challenge was to persuade them that golf is a sport you can play all your life, with other people of all levels of ability."

Spotting an opportunity, the Sports Council approached Brighton's leisure services with the idea of employing someone to encourage more youngsters on to the green.

Mr Haines's extensive teaching experience and golfing background made him the ideal candidate. "The kids have to be taught the etiquette of the game, " said Mr Dickson. "It isn't just a matter of hitting a ball with a stick. Golf is a mental game and has its traditions."

With the help of other professional golfers Mr Haines will, over the next three years, offer golfing tuition to 30 schools in the borough, forge links between schools and nearby clubs, and organise competitions. In its last two years the scheme will be extended to Sussex, and if successful, the Sports Council hopes to develop programmes countrywide.

One of the main aims is to break down the perceived barriers that golf is only for those who can afford to belong to a club, says Pauline Fancourt, head of the Sports Council's south-east regional office. "We need to show those who are interested where they can play and make golf accessible. There are lessons of national interest to be learned here," she says. Clubs where golf has traditionally hibernated have responded positively to the idea. Ms Fancourt says: "Because of the recession they are having to start thinking in wider terms. Young people are potentially future members."

The Golf Foundation has been working towards a more enlightened attitude for the past 30 years. As a charity and national body for the development of junior golf, the foundation subsidises the fees of professionals to teach youngsters. More than 2,000 schools participate in the scheme and the numbers go up 10 per cent every year.

"Golf is growing and about 100,000 children pass through the scheme each year," Chris Plumridge of the Golf Foundation says. Television coverage and the performance of national professional players have made more youngsters interested in playing golf, he says. "But if their parents do not belong to a club they think they cannot play."

More municipal golf courses are needed in the right areas, according to John May, a lecturer in golf studies. As the senior course manager of a new National Diploma in the subject at Merrist Wood College, Surrey, he applauds the appointment of a youth officer.

"This is a major step forward. Golf is growing all the time and is now a multi-billion pound industry. We need people to know more about it," he says.

Since July Mr Haines has been in and out of schools sorting out golf lessons. His own childhood experience, in what he describes as a progressive club which allowed children to take part in all competitions, has been his inspiration. "I always thought we needed something like that, it is long overdue," he says. He believes the scheme will work because the best people in the business are involved; John Stirling, Britain's national coach, has offered his services free.

"It is the first scheme I have come across in 20 years playing that has attempted to tackle the real problem," Mr Haines says. "Instead of waiting for kids to come into clubs, we are taking golf to them. It is a brave thing to try to do."

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