Golf Community Swings the Door Open for Kids

Tiger Woods is back in Augusta, Ga., this week, as curious as everyone about his potential to repeat his 1997 Masters victory - perhaps the greatest display of shotmaking ever witnessed in golf.

On that occasion, Earl Woods waited at the edge of the 18th green, ready to give his son the bear hug that punctuated Tiger's record-setting, 12-stroke victory.

It was an emotional moment, but not the last time Earl Woods, a retired Vietnam vet, publicly shed a tear. In New York's Central Park in November, the senior Woods delivered an emotional talk when he joined a host of golf VIPs in announcing the First Tee project, a major national alliance geared at making golf more affordable and accessible - the twin buzzwords of the sport.

A chance to dream

After months of discussions among golf's national governing body, the United States Golf Association, the professional tours, and assorted groups, the game's movers and shakers basically promised to open golf's doors wider, especially to young people.

"To see all these organizations join together is unprecedented, and it's the biggest day in golf in my lifetime," Woods said. "We're going to give kids a chance to dream big, and to hope."

Tim Finchem, commissioner of the men's PGA Tour, has said that golf must take steps "to make itself look like the rest of America." That means ushering in more youth and people of color.

One place where the First Tee's tentacles are expected to reach is inner-city Detroit. Selina Johnson's Hollywood Golf Institute (see accompanying story) has transformed many young members of Detroit's minority community into avid golfers during the past 17 years, even without a course to call their own.

Now, with junior players in mind, the First Tee initiative is looking to refurbish a municipal course. Ford Motor Company is a major corporate sponsor. This is typical of efforts to put the public and private sectors, including corporations and government, on the same page.

The initial goal of the First Tee coalition is to identify sites for 100 golf facilities in various stages of planning and development that can be used to attract thousands of new players. And this is not confined to regulation 18-hole courses, but to more modest pitch-and-putt, nine-hole, and even three-hole facilities.

The networking possible through the First Tee could funnel millions of dollars into junior golf, but some observers express concern about this project's ambitiousness. Still, there is general enthusiasm about having golf's major "players" under one umbrella, seeking to grow the game.

Most golf watchers are convinced that golf is poised to make significant gains in attracting young people, which would be welcome news for an industry that has seen participation figures flatten out at around 25 million during the 1990s, according to the National Golf Foundation.

The National Association of Junior Golfers is projecting a 6.9 to 8 percent annual growth rate for 17-and-unders through 2005.

Surely, some of this is attributed to the Tigerization of golf, yet other factors are also at work in enlarging golf's youth appeal.

"Michael Jordan may have brought more people into the game [than Tiger]," says Michael Hurdzan, a golf course architect from Columbus, Ohio. The message that golf is cool has been spreading, thanks to Jordan and other pop icons in music and pro sports, who are avid players.

Jordan sold his Michael Jordan Golf Foundation to AMF in a move that he believes gives the foundation "options for more inner-city sites," ones that can use AMF's bowling and recreation centers to enhance the family atmosphere.

Golf in urban areas

Selina Johnson of the Hollywood Golf Institute is a great believer in the family-togetherness aspects of golf - three generations can play together, she observes - but notes that golf households rarely exist in inner cities.

"When you bring golf to urban areas it's not only a matter of educating the young person who will receive it, but you have to educate the parents," she says, "and I think most organizations don't perceive that side of the game."

Lissa Horton, who oversees the PGA Junior Golf Academy for the Tennessee Golf Foundation outside Nashville, says that getting young people from the inner city or rural areas to take advantage of what a model complex offers is difficult. It can be frustrating, Horton says, but the reason is often practical. "The parents want their 13- or 14-year-old baby-sitting his five younger siblings."

There's also the accessibility hurdle, which is why Hurdzan suggests that courses be placed "where kids can ride their bikes or take buses ... to get there."

That is what has happened in Kansas City, Mo., where the Kansas City Golf Foundation hopes to eventually ring the city with a series of child-friendly, three-hole teaching courses. Sally J. Sportsman, the executive director of the nonprofit funding organization, says, "We don't want to just stick flags in the ground. We're taking a very planned approach."

Two courses have been built so far, including the Blue River Golf Course in Swope Park, which is readily accessible to city dwellers and was designed by former Masters champion Tom Watson of Kansas City. "We are a model for the First Tee program," Sportsman says.

Eventually the foundation would like to build an 18-hole course for juniors, but in the meantime it's concentrating on creating three-hole teaching facilities that look and feel like well-maintained regular courses. For $2 a youngster can play Blue River all day, and the fee is waived if they are accompanied by a paying adult ($10). And adults cannot play without a child.

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