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The secret to getting kids into golf

Multi Coloured Balls

If you were born in the 1980s, there’s a good chance your parents have an embarrassing video of you as a child that they’ve held over you all these years like a FUJI-branded ultimatum.

Born in 1984, I’m in that bracket. My folks actually have two videos of me: one, performing the role of ‘Singing Policeman #1’ in my primary school nativity play (because, as we know, Mary and Joseph were entertained in the stable when she was just a few centimetres dilated by a copper belting out all the hits); and two, of my introduction to golf.

The latter I’m okay with. It’s actually quite a sweet thing to watch. In it, I’m around five-years-old and I’m being filmed surreptitiously by my dad and older brother from the window of my brother’s bedroom. It looked out over our back garden which backed onto a huge park in Kirkwall, in the Orkney Islands, where I spent my childhood.

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During the summer (it’s Orkney, so I’m using the term loosely), the park was transformed into a large 18-hole public putting green and I was its best customer.

I wasn’t a particularly sporty kid. I only really took an interest in football when I was about ten and, whilst I cycled everywhere I went, I considered my bike a toy first and a piece of sports kit second.

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This putting green wasn’t just my introduction to golf; it was my introduction to sport.

It cost 20p to play and that included the hire of your putter and ball. The balls were kept in an old Gino Ginelli ice-cream box in the shed where you checked in. I remember having a particular favourite that I had to play with: a Maxfli DDH 500.

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There were separate putters for children and adults. I always took an adult putter but I had a very good reason for it: the shaft was long enough that it fitted perfectly into my sternum when I took my stance. I was anchoring from the age of five.

The putting green was operated by Charlie and Sheila Sinclair, a lovely couple who lived on the opposite side of the park. They regularly let me play for free because I was a friend of their son, Iain. They also ran an annual Kirkwall Putting Green Junior Open competition, which attracted a field of around 20 to 30 local kids. Whilst I lived there, I never missed a year. I also never won. I think my best score was 80. Anchoring, clearly, wasn’t the answer.

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To me, though, it wasn’t a matter of winning or losing. I honestly didn’t care. I just enjoyed the thrill of trying to get the ball in the hole. That sounds like a sentimental cliché but it’s the truth.

Michael Putting

Looking back, the ‘course’ itself was nothing special. The grass was long and crawling with daisies. The equipment was terrible (my DDH 500 aside). It was massively makeshift. But I loved it. I can’t remember anything from my childhood that compares to the euphoria of having a hole-in-one on that putting green. For some reason, I remember it being extra special if it happened on the first hole, a tricky 20-foot downhill putt that broke a couple of feet from right to left.

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Bottom line? It was fun. That’s what shines through most in the video my dad and brother shot. When I watch it back, I smile. Not out of sentimentality but because of how happy I look. There I am, like in the picture above, wearing my favourite Ghostbusters T-shirt, running from one hole to the next, and celebrating like mad after each and every four-putt. It is pure, innocent, unbridled joy.

We left Orkney in 1996 and the putting green closed a couple of years later. Not because it had lost its best customer. Not because its best customer had taken advantage of the regular offer of free games. Instead, the council decided to turn it into a bowling green.

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Even now, when I think that it’s no longer there, it makes me sad. Without it, I probably wouldn’t have taken an interest in golf later in life. There’s even less chance I’d be making my living from it. First impressions last the longest.

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Which brings me to the point. Over the last fifteen years, working as a golf writer, I’ve watched the game’s governing bodies fumble their way from one ‘grow the game’, junior-centric initiative to the next. They’ve blown way too much time and money trying to figure out how to make golf appeal to children, seemingly oblivious to the single most important point: make it fun.

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Children don’t think about things much more deeply than that. They don’t care about what they’re doing, how they’re doing or where they’re doing it so long as they’re having a good time.

Everything else follows in time but that’s the jumping-off point, so to speak.

I’m now a dad myself and VHS players are approaching relic status, but I’ll still make sure to capture precious snapshots of my wee girl being just that: a wee girl.

And when the time comes, I hope my wife and I will use them to embarrass her in front of her other half and know that we’ve done our job.

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