A Lesson from First Round of U.S. Women's Open: Start Young

By: Nancy Berkley

Three players are tied at 3-under par at the end of Thursday's first round of the 66th annual U.S. Women's Open in Kohler, Wis. All three are great golfers and they are all from the United States.

But what's most important for the future of the game is that they all learned to play golf at a very young age. Lizette Salas learned to play when she was seven; Cristie Kerr was eight; and Brittany Linicome nine.

The brightest spot, in fact, on the U.S. golf landscape is that the latest statistics released by the National Golf Foundation is that the number of girls between the ages of 6 and 17 who play at least one round of golf annually has remained steady for the last four years. (The number of women golfers over the age of 18 also increased slightly in 2011 over 2010. The number of adult male golfers and junior boys decreased in 2011.) See these statistics on www.berkleyconsulting.com.

So what is the explanation for this growth in girls' golf? Two answers come quickly to mind: the LPGA and the USGA.

The USGA is making good on its "For the Good of the Game" promise. Since 1989, it has partnered with the LPGA to build the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf Program, which has reached almost 1 million girls between the ages of 7 and 17. According to USGA president Glen Nager, "More young people need to be introduced to golf if the game is to remain healthy and sustainable for future generations. We believe industry and public support of developmental programs such as LPGA-USGA Girls Golf is essential."

There are now about 250 sites across the country where the Girls Golf program is offered. Nancy Henderson, president of the LPGA Foundation and Kiernan Schindler, director of the LPGA Girls Golf Program, along with the resources of the USGA demonstrate how cooperative efforts within the golf industry can have an impact. See http://www.lpgafoundation.org and the girls' golf section.

As you watch this year's U.S. Women's Open you will see a brand-new advertisement - a public service announcement - promoting the LPGA-USGA Girls golf program. It's only 30 seconds but it's good! The two organizations worked together to conceive and produce the PSA, which will subsequently air on select LPGA tournament broadcasts and be made available for other promotional uses following its U.S. Women's Open debut.

During an interview for Cybergolf with Schindler a year ago, when she came aboard the LPGA program, I recognized she was going to bring tremendous focus and marketing to the program. See Kiernan's interview at http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/the_new_fountain_of_youth_part_ii_lpgausga_girls_golf.

In that interview, she said, "Every site director is now working off of our five goals. We call them the 'Five E's': We Empower our girls to feel they can accomplish their goals; We Enrich their lives by teaching them a game they can play and enjoy with friends for a lifetime; We Engage the girls to become involved and make a difference in their communities; We Exercise their minds & bodies and help them realize their potential; We Energize them with our vitality and enthusiasm by sharing our love for the game." Those five E's are part of the PSA aired during the Open.

There are several other factors that are at play in attracting more girls to golf. Let's begin with something immediately obvious - fashion. The women in the U.S. Open and in LPGA Tournament events look great; they're attractive, athletic and fashionable. Rickie Fowler isn't the only golfer who knows the power of a fashion statement.

The golf dress that Se Ri Pak wore in the first round earned compliments from Judy Rankin in the commentators booth. The extremely popular zappos.com website now has a special category for "golf skorts," which tells you there is a significant market out there for women (and girls) golf clothes.

Ten years ago, most young girls who thought about golf found a dreary wardrobe of knee-length and belted Bermuda shorts with a polo-style shirt tucked in. Not like those cute soccer or tennis shorts that were pulling girls to the field and courts! But today, just one look at the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf newsletter and you will observe what a seismic change has taken place in golf fashion. That girls think about fashion is not to say they don't think about their swing. Remember, females are great multi-taskers.

But digging a little deeper, several years ago I worked with the National Golf Foundation in Jupiter, Fla., to find out the number of girls who would be "interested" in playing golf. I already knew that about a half-million said they played a regulation round at least once a year.

But that was just the tip of the iceberg. I wanted to see the whole girls' golf market, and learned that below that tip there were about 2 million girls (ages 5 to 17) who said they were "interested" in playing or were already using practice ranges and short courses.

Reaching this "interested" segment is a challenge. In many cases, the kids or their parents didn't know how to find a course or range or a teacher or affordable lessons. The First Tee, in many cases, helped lead the way for junior golfers.

What the First Tee established was that there was a lot to "learn" about golf far beyond becoming a professional golfer. The First Tee's nine life-skill lessons helped to discover that golf was good for kids. And credit to the First Tee for working to reach young girls as well as young boys to the program.

But the appeal of a girls-only golf program made sense. Founded in 1989, the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf helped create a more fun-oriented program. The goal of Girls Golf is not to develop future stars - although some could emerge from the program. It is to grow the game by starting young and showing what the game offers to all skill levels from those who want to play relaxed, fun golf as well as to those who seek more competitive experiences.

Every woman and girl should watch Juli Inkster in today's second round. Juli is 52 years old, married, with two daughters ages 21 and 18, and a husband who will be her caddie in this Open. This will be her 33rd year playing in the U.S. Women's Open - which she's won twice, proving that golf is a game for a lifetime.

And the first lesson is to start young.

Nancy Berkley, President of Berkley Golf Consulting, is an expert on women's golf and junior-girls golf. She is a frequent contributor to www.cybergolf.com/womensgolf. Her book, "Women Welcome Here! A Guide to Growing Women's Golf," published by the National Golf Foundation, is an industry reference on marketing golf to women and spotting trends within the industry. She offers information and advice about the golf industry on www.berkleygolfconsulting.com and is often quoted in national publications. She was a contributing editor of "Golf for Women" magazine and a founding advisor of "Golfer Girl Magazine." Her interviews with women in the golf industry now appear on www.golfergirlcareers.com. Nancy lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, Harvard University and Rutgers Law School. After a business and legal career, she decided to write about the game she learned and loved as a teenager. She describes herself as a good bogey golfer with permanent potential.