Compleat Golfer’s playing editor Brandon Stone tells us that the most important thing for a young golfer is to have fun.
Golf has never been more professional than it is today. In fact, the game has become more of an industry, rather than a ‘mere sport’.
However, the key is that this argument is not limited to professional golf. Today’s young golfers could almost be called ‘junior professionals’ and the days of one simply being ‘talented enough’ to make it are long behind us. I firmly believe we’re in danger of losing one key element of the sport: fun.
When I look at today’s promising young golfers I have a touch of sympathy for them. Maybe it’s because they’re missing out on such an important aspect of their golf development – enjoyment.
I speak from personal experience. My first memory of competitive golf came at the age of 10. It was a Gauteng North Junior (GNJ) event at Waterkloof Golf Club in mid-July, which is not exactly the warmest time of the year, but it was during school holidays and I wasn’t going to let the chance to play pass me by.
The excitement I felt the night before has still not been matched to this day. I cleaned out my entire golf bag that night and made sure my peanut butter and honey sandwiches were secure inside my little Ping carry bag. I even made sure I had my electric blanket on full heat so I wouldn’t be stiff in the morning.
When the alarm went off at 4:30am, I jumped out of bed, had a shower, got dressed and was in the car within 15 minutes. It’s fair to say I haven’t been able to do that again!
My mother came limping into the garage, fell exhausted into the car and off we went. The golf club’s car park was deserted and the temperature was just above zero degrees! Mom gave me R50 and said, ‘Have fun, boy. See you tonight,’ and off she drove into the sunrise.
Under the weight of clubs on my shoulders, tog bag in one hand and blazer in the other, I staggered into the clubhouse to be greeted by tannie Molly, who ran the GNJ Golf Foundation at the time. She was in her early seventies, with a knitted red sweater, not a strand of hair out of place and a smile from ear to ear. Don’t be mistaken, though, we were all petrified of her.
After a toasted chicken mayo sandwich and a short warm-up on the range, I was set to go. I strolled confidently on to the 10th tee, where all C-Division players teed off, ready to claim my title. I wish I could say I went out there and shot the lights out, winning by five, but I’d be lying.
I was battered and bruised, my ego long dumped on the 7th green, while I tried to tally what was a scorecard of cricketing proportions. But, you know what … it was one of the best days of my life.
It’s because I spent the whole day doing what I love, with my friends. What more could you want as a kid? Well, in today’s game it seems like they want a lot more.
And that’s what’s missing from modern sport. There’s too much expectation – and it doesn’t only apply to golf. Go watch a schools rugby match and there’ll be those parents walking up and down the touchline, swearing, shouting at the ref and basically demanding more from their boy who they think is destined to be a Springbok in a few years’ time.
The pressure that comes from within a household is not to be underplayed. Fortunately, I had such supportive parents that I was still allowed to enjoy my golf, which made a huge difference in the years to come. I wasn’t expected to win every tournament I entered, even though I was blessed to win plenty, but the freedom of being able to express myself and have fun paved the way for the things that lay ahead.
It feels like the ‘modern parent’ decides that their child is going to become a professional golfer when they’re five years old, which won’t be the case unless your name is Tiger Woods. They hire the best coaches, personal trainers, dietitians, psychologists and performance coaches in an effort to emulate the likes of Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson. Earl Woods made it abundantly clear that is what he had done with Tiger, and he became the greatest of all time. But at what cost to his personal life – and his body? He’s the greatest, and he’s 43, but can you see him enjoying his golf at 50?
Growing up, all I wanted to do was compete. It used to drive my old man insane. I would never do any of the drills my coach had given me, I just wanted to beat the local members at a chipping or putting competition.
Most of the time the prize was along the lines of a strawberry milkshake, the ultimate beverage to validate one’s victory. Now when I walk past the local putting green I see 12-year-olds with more drills than Builders Warehouse. There they stand, on the same spot, headphones on, expressionless and oblivious to the world. Parents often complain about their kids not being socially engaging because of cellphones and screens … golf’s equivalent is a putting drill.
I’m not saying there isn’t a place for coaching aspects and drills, because there is. But there’s a time and place for it. A 12-year-old doesn’t need to be treated like a professional, but a kid. And as one grows older, one realises the kid inside us stays there. It’s important not to grow up in a world of unrealistic expectation.
Instead of taking your kid to the range and having them hit balls for hours, take them for a nine-hole outing on a Friday afternoon with a small wager on the line. I’d suggest a strawberry milkshake, but that’s just me.
Kids don’t want to be taught. They’re taught at school all year. They want to get rid of frustration, burn their energy and, most of all, have fun. Parents and guardians have a huge role to play in their future – and the future well-being of our golf.