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Blog No.3: Why more walkers could mean more golfers

By Ben Evans, Golf Foundation Press Officer

Back in the 1920s, Walter Hagen, whose unflinching style won him four consecutive US PGA trophies, has been quoted as saying golf isn’t all about winning: golfers should be “sure to smell the flowers along the way”.

Many non-golfers out there have been doing just that during the pandemic, as walking has become a staple activity in many of our lives again. Fortunately, a fair few of our golf courses either sit beside public walking land, or are able to invite the public to walk on areas of the course and enjoy its beauty, the flora and fauna, and fresh air.

Hopefully, some of these people have given a thought or two to a sport they may have hardly considered before. If more people have been looking in on our world of golf, I wonder what they think? Well, in any event, we should also be looking back at them, giving them a smile and a wave, and learning a bit more about what makes them tick.

Last summer, when restrictions eased after lockdown, this led to a big upsurge in demand to book tee times and there was a mini boom. For once, discussion about golf outside our bubble wasn’t about golf’s ‘standoffishness’ or elitist image but about its health benefits, and this is surely a great opportunity for our sport to make new friends. Could we shake off that ill-fitting tweed golf jacket once and for all?

And for individual clubs, could 2021 be the year when more can be done to truly engage with those new people who are currently walking, running, skipping or on the swings next to our fairways and greens? Much of this engagement can come through something that golfers and non-golfers share, which is an appreciation of nature, health, exercise and friendship. In fact, has the pandemic shown us that golfers and non-golfers are more similar than previously thought?

I’m always delighted to say hello on the golf course to a non-golfing walker, because it’s an opportunity to show that golfers can be friendly types. They discover that we do not all act like Captain Mainwaring when he has been outfoxed by Sergeant Wilson.

Our Golf Foundation team is working hard to break down barriers and change how modern young people and families view the game, aided by a great many forward-thinking golf clubs, PGA coaches, volunteers, and partner companies and organisations. It’s a gradual process, but it’s a commitment.

A key aim in the year ahead will be to work with a more detailed focus alongside our clubs (our HSBC Golf Roots Centres), so that apart from taking golf into schools and setting up learning for new youngsters in clubs, we’ll be working to help coaches and managers to elevate their junior offer to create a whole new atmosphere at their venue, to attract more family golfers; working with them to reach out to their surrounding community and reflect that community. By doing this we can make the game more appealing and genuinely inclusive to kids from all backgrounds and of all abilities.

A number of golf clubs are already doing just that and more power to them, led by some highly creative PGA Professionals and managers with the backing of their club members. At the height of the pandemic, PGA Professionals Steve Hall in Suffolk and Jason Avery in Cornwall were taking their innovative coaching methods into schools and promoting how safe measures and imaginative thinking can still ensure children can enjoy their sport, despite the challenges.

Engaging with non-golfers

In pre-Covid times, many more clubs were becoming more outward facing for visitors, making the club the place to be for spa sessions, public classes, coffee or lunch. It is about having your heart in the right place and engaging with non-golfers. And if more people in the community have a new-found love of walking and fresh air, such a sea-change can be seized upon for the good of all our physical and mental health, and for the long term good of our sport.

Alison Oliver, CEO of the Youth Sport Trust, the charity that supports all young people through sport in schools, wrote to us last summer to say: “How wonderful it is that the golf courses in our area have opened up to the public, allowing us all to get great exercise, enjoy fabulous countryside and importantly keep a social distance. Sam and I have been walking Broadstone Golf Club’s course every week with Pickle the dog and we have been so uplifted by just how many families have been out walking together. Your sport must have made a huge contribution to keeping everyone active, but most of all, children. Thank you and your sport so much.”

It’s great to see golf spoken about in this way by leading figures in sport.

The R&A is submitting a planning application to Glasgow City Council for the construction of a new community golf facility that it is hoped will open in the summer of 2022. It looks like the perfect golf and leisure haven, catering for committed golfers, brand new players on that day, and friends and family who merely want a nice leisure experience.

The project aims to redevelop the existing public course at Lethamhill to create a family-focused venue with a nine-hole course, Par 3 course, putting greens, short-game area, adventure golf and a 25-bay floodlit driving range for visitors, and will include scenic tracks for walkers. A café, fitness studio, indoor simulator, movie theatre, education room and retail area are also being planned as part of a central hub that would offer views north over nearby Hogganfield Loch to the Campsie Fells and south to the City of Glasgow.

Health benefits a great advertisement

We know that many golf clubs, led by conscientious and expert greenkeepers (who deserve huge praise during the last year!), are embracing the promotion of natural diversity so, depending where your golf ball lands as a new player, if you’re lucky you should see and hear plenty of wildlife. All of this, combined with the absorbing technical challenge of golf and the camaraderie of friends, can help to boost your mental health considerably (the ‘Golf & Health’ project, supported by the World Golf Foundation, has demonstrated that golf can help individuals improve their confidence, self-esteem and anxiety levels. Physical activity is a proven treatment for depression and anxiety and is seen to help prevent these. See more at www.golfandhealth.org).

Through the Golf Foundation’s recent work, boys and girls are enjoying golf in often mixed group coaching as they learn to play with the latest generation of PGA coaches. Children, perhaps shy children, who aren’t at first a natural fit for team sports, are finding their feet and building their confidence within the group or team dynamic. Indeed, in 2019, 260 golf clubs and more than 3,000 boys and girls played in mixed teams of six, in six hole inter-club matches in a new format – ‘GolfSixes League’ – created by the Golf Foundation with the aim of boosting a feeling of belonging in our club junior sections, and welcoming new young players.

The beauty of golf courses

Kids today of course are often highly interested in the environment and this is helping to forge the link between schools and local golf clubs. Brodick Primary School on the Isle of Arran developed an award-winning community project supported by the Golf Foundation, linking golf activity with the realities of coastal erosion, a blight suffered by Brodick Golf Club. From this appreciation of their local club and their support, 20 young people (10 girls) became members.

Like Brodick GC, Saunton Golf Club’s Director of Coaching Tiffany MacKenzie ‘outreached’ into local schools with a view that if you are keen and positive, Saunton GC will help you get started in the game; the club having been praised for its scholarship programme. Saunton is on a beautiful part of Devon coastline and Tiff always wants to get the kids on the course, learning while appreciating the beauty around them. Tiff says: “It is their ultimate learning environment. Discovery on the course gives juniors new experiences which will stretch their minds.”

Club & community

We would love to hear from some courses where the link between club and community has thrived in recent months. Similarly, if you know of non-golfers who have had an enjoyable experience either with new walks near a club or by connecting with people at a club, please let us know.

However, we are also aware of how in modern life, even walking can be fraught with the odd slip. This writer knows some clubs might have issues with the public walking on the course, rights of way, safety issues etc, and there have been issues of vandalism by the public in the lockdowns. Every golf club is different, in a different space. We understand that some clubs can’t welcome ramblers despite perhaps wanting to. But if your golf club cannot welcome walkers, we would love to hear creative ways that have been tried (probably before Covid-19) to connect with those people who don’t know golf, and who may have barely heard of Rory McIlroy, never mind Walter Hagen!

Hagen made his comment about smelling the flowers long before the advent of 21st century ‘mindfulness’ magazines and podcasts, but his point hits home. The Golf Foundation recognises the life skills that golf can offer young people who are under an increasing amount of pressure from all angles. This charity recently carried out a successful pilot project on a life skills programme called ‘Unleash your Drive’, to help young people not only gain confidence and resilience on the golf course but in their wider lives, including in the school environment. The youngsters involved at four golf clubs showed a 20% increase in mental toughness, after completing a series of tailored coaching sessions and being measured on Confidence, Commitment, Challenge and Control.

Alex Macgregor, the PGA Pro at Addington Court GC, said one of his students was regularly excluded from school for losing his temper, but during the Unleash your Drive programme Alex was able to teach him breathing and visualisation techniques that allowed him to ‘control his fizz’, enabling the child to avoid exclusion for the entire length of programme.

The initiative is aimed at helping coaches to deliver a normal golf coaching session with the added focus of teaching exercises such as breathing, mindfulness and visualisation. Whether they are ‘taught’, or ‘caught’, golf is a great game that teaches us life lessons for the rest of our lives.

Unleash your Drive is a modern approach but it tallies well with Walter Hagen’s view on smelling those flowers. In golf, as in life, it’s also about seizing the day and finding some joy for yourself, whether walking with a golf club in hand… or not. For Walter Hagen also said: “You’re only here for a short visit.”

 

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