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Youngsters try a Highland fling

As Sportscotland strives to implement Scottish Executive plans to teach golf to all nine-year-olds, Roddy Mackenzie reports on progress in the Highlands

The ambition of the Scottish Executive to place a golf club in the hands of every nine-year-old schoolchild in Scotland by 2009 will take another step closer to being realised this year. Sportscotland is to fund six sports development officers across Scotland, each concentrating on junior golf.

The positions are being discussed by local authorities and appointments are expected within the next few months. The officer in Grampian is expected to look primarily at the development of girls' golf, while the one in Glasgow will focus on social inclusion. The one covering Tayside and Fife will specialise in talent identification, the Central officer will plan a club development programme and Edinburgh's will looking to raise the profile of golf through education.

Highland Council is hopeful of appointing a junior golf development officer shortly after Christmas. The proposal has gone before the education, culture and sport committee and it expects no shortage of applications for the three-year post, which may become a permanent position.

For Highland, this is a natural extension of work that is going on already, such as the Gael Force 10 coaching development project. School sports co-ordinators and the council's sports development officers have also staged golf competitions and festivals over the past two years, which have been enthusiastically welcomed by schools.

A Golf Highland scheme which links local courses with hotels in an attempt to boost tourism in the area has led to the clubs reaching out more. The next step is to build up their junior development work and forge links with schools. Many clubs have active junior sections but taking a party of schoolchildren to a club for coaching can present difficulties, particularly for schools in more remote parts of the region.

"It's the perennial problem for sports here," says Ian Murray, head of Highland Council's community services.

"I think we are fairly lucky in that we are not in an urban situation where some golf clubs can be seen as exclusive.

"Generally clubs are quieter here and it is easier for children to get on to courses than elsewhere in Scotland."

There are more than 30 clubs in the Highland area and the new junior development officer will be asked to undertake an audit of participation levels and club links to local schools.

"There is a strong tradition for golf in the area and we have produced a lot of good players over the years," says Mr Murray.

"Indeed, many people say that shinty players make the best golfers as they can hit the ball so far and they just need to be tamed.

"It will be a huge job for someone but it will also be a great opportunity to get to the guts of clubs and play a big part in shaping the future talent."

A database of junior players will be set up and a junior club development programme will be established, encompassing existing sports development structures which have golf as part of their fabric. It is anticipated that all the clubs with junior programmes will link into the one network.

Highland's new golf development officer will also be asked to pilot a training programme for coaches and volunteers and to establish school-club links that allow talent to be evaluated so that the best young players can feed into existing Scottish Golf Union and Scottish Ladies Golf Association programmes to be considered for regional and national age-group squads.

The SGU is making a big push on junior golf and recently appointed Lyle Anderson, the president and owner of Loch Lomond Golf Club, as honorary patron of junior golf in Scotland. He will help to oversee some of the SGU's initiatives as it seeks to reach out to every schoolchild in Scotland.

Since 1997, the SGU has raised almost pound;200,000 from the sale of tee times at the Loch Lomond club to Scottish golf club members and every penny has been invested in the development of junior golf. Golf starter kits and equipment have been donated to schools and links have been fostered between schools and local clubs or driving ranges. It is estimated that 10,000 boys and girls have benefited.

Another key golfing appointment is expected to be announced shortly. The Professional Golfers Association, together with Sportscotland, is funding a golf education manager to lead and develop coaching initiatives. The post will be based at Gleneagles and the main responsibility will be to set up and manage a national training programme for coaches. It is anticipated the job will be filled by November and a team of tutors will come under the manager's wing to help deliver the coaching strategy to young players.

The fruits of all these initiatives will not be evident for some years. Even if the aim to get every youngster playing golf within six years is achieved, the SGU and SLGA are more concerned that children will have the opportunity to reach their full potential in the game.

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