Golf was never meant to be a sport exclusively for grownups, it just seems that way. After all, how many youngsters can afford a round at $7 or $8 a pop, shoot anything approaching par on a 500-yard hole, or carry a set of clubs on the back of their bikes?
The time has come, however, to actively encourage a wider circle of young players. Or so says Dean Beman, commissioner of the PGA Tour (the men's pro tournament circuit). Proof that the PGA Tour shares his conviction is that organization's funding of a junior golf course at Walt Disney World in Florida.
Though not the nation's first junior course, the $200,000 Wee Links layout is certainly destined to be the country's most famous when it opens in October. that's a function of building this six-holer on 25 acres of Disney property, where excellent visibility is a given.
The course, a potential prototype, incorporates several unique features, including:
* Small, flat sand traps.
* Shallow water hazards only 24 inches deep, a depth that facilitates ball retrieval.
* Low-maintenance tees and greens covered with an artificial turf, which can be top- dressed (sprinkled with sand, to vary the speed of the putting surfaces).
* And scaled-down holes that better correspond to the distances junior golfers hit the ball.
Golf has historically offered pitch-and-putt and par-three courses for those who prefer shorter holes, but the Disney layout will be one of the few courses designed specifically with the junior player in mind.
The concept is much the same as that used in Little League baseball, where 60 instead of the standard 90 feet separate the bases.
Tailoring a course's length for younger players eliminates some of the frustrations encountered by the short hitter on regulation- length holes and, in addition, can speed up play.
Most courses discourage young novices from teeing it up, since they are a danger to the steady flow of adult traffic. As a result, children are sent off to play miniature golf, which bears little resemblance to the real game, and only gradually make their way onto the course after stints at driving ranges or sometimes as caddies. Youths who do make it onto the fairways generally are hovered over by their parents or a teaching pro.
The Disney course is for 18-and-unders, but it's greatest appeal is expected to be for those several years younger. Adults will be permitted to play if they accompany juniors.
The green fee, a modest $2, includes the use of clubs and balls plus a quickie course on proper golf etiquette. The idea, says Disney golf director Phil Ritson, is not to attract the game's hot-shot juniors, but "youngsters who may never have been on a golf course."
Dale Antram of the PGA Tour office in Florida says that most existing junior golf programs are devoted to providing competitive opportunities for youngsters already playing the game. To expand spectator interest in its own tournaments, however, the men's pro circuit realizes it must expose more young people to the game.
The Wee Links concept may be just what junior golf needs.
Harry Eckhoff, director of information for the National Golf Foundation, says junior play fell off noticeably during the 1960s, "when young people rebelled against a game they felt was for the rich." To reverse the general decline in participation, the foundation has begun conducting clinics wherever it finds potential young golfers, whether at schools or public parks.
Efforts of this nature led to a 5.1 percent increase in junior participation last year. Yet among nearly 13 million serious players, adults still outnumber youngsters nearly 10 to 1.
If golf truly is a "lifetime sport," grammar schoolers and grandparents should feel equally as welcome on the course, and they do at the Jim Ager Memorial Junior Golf Course in Lincoln, Neb. This par-three layout, one of only two municipal junior courses in the country (the other is in New Orleans), was built in 1967. Juniors from 8 to 15 pay only $1.i5 to play this nine-holer, while adults are charged $3.20 and seniors $2.20.
Though the city donated the land, private contributors came up with the $100, 000 in construction and equipment costs.
Up to this point, Ritson says, the cost of building junior courses has been the main factor inhibiting their growth. Now that the PGA Tour has come up with an economy model, junior layouts using the less expensive "Mod Sod" tees and greens could soon dot the nation.
There's no plan to franchise the Wee Links concept like some fast-food business, but the PGA Tour is willing to share its expertise with any individual or group interested in building a junior course. Whatever the course size or number of holes, the idea will be to stimulate regular playing conditions. Disney's Wee Links course, therefore, has holes ranging from a 118-yard par three to a 395-yard par five.
In addition, a junior yardage system has been devised so that a par four 280 -yard hole is listed as 372 "junior yards" (a junior yard being a regulation yard plus one-third).