Observations from the U.S. Open: Youth & the Future of Golf

By: Nancy Berkley

That Webb Simpson is the winner of the 2012 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco may already be old news. As is Jim Furyk's drive off the 16th hole where he misjudged the length of Sunday's shortened hole and probably lost his chance to win the championship.

Nancy & Her Grandsons

The golf world is on to the next PGA Tour stop, the Travelers Championship near Hartford, Conn., and the LPGA Manulife Tournament in Ontario. Most are busy computing where Simpson now stands in the FedEx Cup and if Tiger Woods can recover. But I think there is more to say about this last U.S. Open. And it is about youth - kids and juniors, and the future of the golf industry in the United States. I have never been more optimistic.

I attended Monday's practice round and then brought my two young grandsons to Friday's competition. More about that below in the section: Advice to Adults Bringing Kids to a Golf Tournament.

In preparation for this article, I read the background and statistics of all of the 156 qualifiers for this U.S. Open. Thanks to the USGA for putting all the information in a nice thick book for the media reporters. For starters, I was curious about the age of those who qualified and those who made the cut. Would the average age of the two groups be different? Would those who made the cut be older and more experienced?

And the answer: The average age of the 156 qualifiers was 34, and the median age was also 34. In other words, half of the players in the first round were 34 or younger. And the fact that the average age and median age were the same indicated that the ages were evenly distributed among the 156-player field. Surprisingly, the average age of players making the cut was also 34 - as was the median age. Since I don't have the data from previous U.S. Open's with respect to age, I can't say whether or not there is a trend to younger golfers competing in this event. I'll leave that research up to the USGA.

But for this Open and as a generalization, whether a player made the cut or didn't make the cut may not be a matter of age - or tournament experience for that matter. As most golfers know on any given day, the spirit may be with you - or it may not be. The spirit was sitting on 42-year old Furyk's shoulder until he stood on the 16th tee. And then it moved to the shoulder of the 26-year-old who won the coveted trophy.

For those interested, the oldest player in the field was Michael Allen, age 53, who now plays on the Champions Tour. Allen is twice the age of Simpson and playing at this Open at his hometown club, where he's been a member since a junior golfer, has been a dream. He made the cut and posted a final score of 294 - 13 strokes off the leader.

It's too soon to tell whether all future professional tournaments will favor youth over experience. But being young and a good golfer made news at this Open. In fact, the youngest qualifier to ever play in the U.S. Open was the 14-year-old amateur Andy Zhang, born in Beijing, China and now residing in Florida. There were eight amateurs who qualified for this Open. The oldest was 22. Four of the amateurs made the cut. Beau Hossler, age 17, was keeping right up there with the leaders. In fact coming into the fourth round, Hossler was only four strokes behind Furyk, almost twice his age.

After the second round, a TV reporter asked Mike Davis, executive director of the USGA, how he felt about Hossler playing as well as the seasoned professionals. Without a pause, Davis said one of the most important missions of the USGA is to support amateur golf. I think it's fair to say that without the contributions from the USGA and its foundation, both the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf and the First Tee programs would not be as successful as they are today.

Davis went on to say that the USGA is thinking about all types of programs and changes that will help grow the game. In his words, they are looking at "everything." What surprised me was when he suggested that perhaps recreational golfers don't have to turn in scores for every round. Wow! That's really thinking outside the box, which is something that tradition-bound golfers have a hard time doing.

And then the interview broke for a USGA public-service announcement but I continued watching. What caught my eye as the PSA rolled along was a young boy bouncing a golf ball off the face of a club. And the boy was wearing baggy blue jeans. Baggy blue jeans in an official USGA photo? That suggests the organization is serious about attracting young people to golf. Maybe not blue jeans anytime or everywhere, but including that photo in that PSA is sending a message. I think it's a good one.

But, it wasn't just the age of the golfers that caught my attention as I read the background of all the 156 qualifiers. I was surprised at their athletic ability and background - lots of great genes in the golfers and their families. There are basketball and baseball players, water polo and tennis players and skiers. Keegan Bradley, for example (also the nephew of the great LPGA player Pat Bradley), was an all-state ski racer in Vermont. Nicholas Thompson is the older brother of Lexi Thompson, the youngest qualifier of the U.S. Women's Open at age 12.

I think golf sometimes takes a bum rap for not being viewed as a sport for real athletes. The industry has to do something about changing that perception. We need an "I Play Golf" campaign message delivered by our golf athletes. It would be the golf industry's version of the very successful "Got Milk" campaign.

In the profiles I also focused on the age they were introduced to golf. Generally, it was very young. Some began at age three and many more around ages eight and nine. Only a few picked up the game for the first time in their late-teens. There's a lesson there! As many have heard me say, "They wouldn't sell as many bicycles if no one learned to ride until they were 21."

Another topic who introduced these Open players to golf? More often than not, that role was performed by their parents. It often was dad but moms, aunts and even grandmothers played a role also. This is a perfect transition to my experience taking my two grandsons to the Olympic Club on Friday for the second round of the tournament. Coby, almost nine, and Alex, almost seven, live in a suburb south of San Francisco. When I realized I had planned a visit to California at the same time as the U.S. Open, I thought it was destiny calling.

Writing about my grandsons or junior boys golf is not a typical golf assignment for me. Usually I focus on women and junior-girls golf. But recently I had attended the golf industry's strategic planning conference: Golf 20/20 sponsored by the World Golf Foundation. A major topic was how to attract more young children to the game. Suggestions ranged from little-league golf to shorter courses. But, there was not much talk about encouraging more juniors to attend more professional tournaments.

Now in San Francisco, I had the perfect opportunity to conduct my own experiment. I had a built-in focus group and could observe my grandsons' reactions to watching great golfers play this game on a great course. I would be taking them to the "Super Bowl of golf," and they were all for it.

Actually, I began introducing Coby and Alex (and their older sister, Kayla) to golf when they were each about three. Many golf instructors would say that the age of three is too early except for the occasional golf prodigy. But whenever I came for a visit, they asked me to take them to Crystal Springs Golf Course in Burlingame (down on the Peninsula where they live). Crystal Springs has a perfect driving range for children. The practice tees are at the top of a hill so even a grounder rolls a fair distance.

I always made the experience fun. And, at first, the most fun was putting the dollar bills in the ball machine and holding the basket as the range balls fell into it. I always made sure they had an age-appropriate driver, iron and putter. I seldom gave any pointers about how to grip the club or swing. I did not want to be their teacher, but I gave lots of safety lessons including never leaving their teeing mat without me.

What's so wonderful about these early golf experiences is that children don't realize they're supposed to hit the ball on every shot. Instead, if after four whiffs, they finally connect, that's all it takes to motivate them for the next ball they put on the tee. But taking two young children to the U.S. Open required more planning than visits to a practice range.

In preparation, I visited the Olympic Club on Monday for the first practice round. I walked the course and planned our Friday. With thousands of people around, it's a good idea to know where you are going with two little kids. See my previous Cybergolf article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_news/practice_rounds_at_the_us_open_junior_golfers_welcome).

Almost all professional tournaments have an "admission-free" policy for children and juniors under the age of 17 if accompanied by a paying adult ticket-holder. Check out the website of any tournament event to find out the children's ticket policy.

Our visit on Friday was a great success. Coby gave it a "10." Based on my experience, eight or nine is a perfect age to bring children to a golf tournament. Alex, age 7, gave our day an "8"

Advice to Adults Taking Kids to a Golf Tournament

Unless you're comfortable as the golf teacher, invest in a couple of lessons with a golf professional who likes teaching kids. Fortunately for Coby and Alex, their parents belong to the Peninsula Golf and Country Club in San Mateo, Calif. (the only course west of the Mississippi River designed by Donald Ross). One of the PGA apprentices in the golf shop, Donny McCleary, likes teaching kids and gave the boys a couple of lessons. Coby who loves soccer and lacrosse surprised himself at how much he liked golf. Donny made it fun: Lots of contests, lots of team games and most often just on the practice tee and green, not the 18-hole course which is just too overwhelming for kids.

Donny made sure they knew what different clubs were for - from woods to hybrids to mid irons to wedges to putters. That's very important background kids will use when they attend a tournament.

Take children out for a riding "tour" of a course. (Almost every adult golfer I interview remembers when their parents first took them out on the course.) Let them see what a par-3, par-4 and long par-5 look like, how long they are and how fairways turn. Explain the concept of "par." Yes, they will understand it! Show them water hazards and bunkers. Bunker play is so important in televised professional tournaments, I think kids should try to use a club in a bunker and see how sand reacts to a club. Let a pro demo some bunker shots for them.

Go over the rules for being at a tournament. First and most important: Stay close and never lose sight of me (and my husband who came along with us) which means no running ahead. The other important rule: When part of a gallery, if an official puts her hands in the air it means absolute silence because a player is making a shot at that very moment!

Manage your expectations. Based on my experience, kids will last about four hours at the maximum at a tournament - and that includes lunch. Avoid bringing them into the merchandise tent, and if you do, make a bee-line for tee shirts and hats. Pick out about five things for them to experience on the course. Here was my list for the U.S. Open:

Pro Tracer on First Fairway

Watch players hitting onto the 18th green and putting. This is what they'll almost always see on TV if they watch the final round of the tournament. If you make this your first stop, the green will not be too crowded because the leaders will not be near the 18th green. What turned out to be very interesting was that many balls rolled off the green into the fringe or short rough. The boys tried to guess whether the golfer would use his putter or a wedge. On one green (later in the day), they saw Tiger Woods use his 3-wood. They won't forget that! And this is a good place to teach kids about the color of caddie bibs. They found that interesting and double-checked the bib colors on their programs.

Pick a good short par 4-hole and find a spot along the fairway where tee shots land. Ideally it's best if you can see the green as the players hit their second shot. At the Open, we found a great spot on the first fairway. It was very exciting for Coby and Alex to see Tiger walk to his tee shot and hit to the green.

I can't think of any sport where you can be this close to a great player without having to buy expensive front row or box seats. We were also right next to the "Pro Tracer" technician that provides those animated depictions of a ball's flight path. The technician could tell the boys the distances of the drives and the distance to the green.

Not all tee shots landed in the fairway, which was great for us. In fact, a few landed in the rough not too far from where we were sitting. Coby knew enough about club selection that he could make a guess about what club - wood or iron - the player would use. The boys also found it fun that at certain times they could walk across the fairways to a different hole.

Coby with Tiger's Practice Ball

Watch a group tee off. Once again, if you are lucky you can get close and hear the sound of a powerful swing.

Visit the practice tee or putting green. It's a great place to make the "everyone has to practice" point. I also like the putting green because the kids can easily see how many different styles of putting there are and how many different ways different players practice. And, we had a bonus as we left the putting green. One of Tiger's friends who was keeping him company on the putting green came off the green and for some magic reason spotted Coby. He handed him a ball saying "Here's a ball that Tiger practiced with." How cool was that for a nine-year-old?

Make sure you see a few really famous golfers - the ones that they will see on TV. We were lucky to see Phil Mickelson, Tiger and Furyk leave the practice green and head to the first tee. It was exciting to see real stars of the game. I wish they had seen Webb Simpson!

Some final thoughts for the industry about kids and tournaments:

The boys and I both noticed that there was not much at this U.S. Open site for kids. It's not surprising because there aren't too many kids who attend this special event. And space in the common areas is tight.

But, thinking ahead and understanding how much science there is to the game of golf, I wonder whether the USGA or the Golf Course Superintendent's Association of America could have some kind of "kid's zone." What fun it would be for children to see what a golf ball looks like inside - cut in half. Or a club separated into its parts and how it is all put back together. And there is so much about conservation and grasses that would provide a mini-museum experience - maybe even with some hands-on opportunities (check out a Northwest-based foundation called First Green - http://www.thefirstgreen.org/sites/courses/layout9.asp?id=625&page=33830 - which has brought over 8,000 school students to learn about the environmental benefits of golf courses).

It's something to think about as younger golfers not only fill the professional ranks but will keep the game prosperous for generations ahead. "For the Good of the Game" - the tag line of the USGA - let's get the kids more involved. Let's make them feel welcome even at tournaments.

Finally, for those parents looking to find where a local tournament might be, check out the websites for the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Champions Tour and Nationwide Tour. Many of these events include special clinics for kids. There are also numerous junior tournaments to be found at the www.juniorlinks.com.  This is a very comprehensive website of the USGA and has some great teaching sections.

Another avenue to junior and family golf can be found on www.playgolfamerican.com, where you can search for events and programs by zip code. Make sure you check out the First Tee programs in your area and the LPGA-USGA Girls golf programs - all on easy to navigate websites.

Finally, and most important, take your kids to a real golf tournament. Have some family fun. Be part of the future of the game.

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.