PGA President: Developmentally Appropriate Play Matters

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 Unlike most sports played by youth, the coaches in golf are rarely volunteers. Most are teaching professionals affiliated with the PGA of America, which gives the organization a special ability to influence the quality of the experience – and the future of the game. Increasingly, that vast network across the country has been mobilized as agents of change, armed with resources and opportunities.

 Most recently, in January, the PGA of America introduced PGA.coach, a tool that recognizes seven stages of learning and aligns with the U.S. Olympic Committee’s American Development Model framework.

In this month’s Project Play 2020 member spotlight, PGA President Suzy Whaley, the first woman to lead the organization and a former touring pro, talked about the value of the resource in a recent conversation with Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program Executive Director Tom Farrey. She also discussed plans to grow the diversity of participants, the organization’s stance on multisport play, and the role of Project Play 2020 in collaborating to address challenges and gaps.

 Below is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Tom Farrey: What are some of the particular challenges golf faces?

Suzy Whaley: Some of it is perception; some of it is real. The perceptions are that golf is expensive, that golf is for the elite, and that golf is only for families who are wealthy. In fact, 70% of our courses across the country are daily fee courses. Some of which you can play golf for less than going to a movie. But, we really are trying to be inclusive and go into communities that have never been around golf. Our hope is that in 10 years, any kid will be able to walk into a facility and see somebody that looks like them. Right now, that is not always the case.  

Farrey: What kind of programs have found success in growing participation and retention of youth?

Whaley: We have PGA Jr. League, which has been incredibly successful. In 2018, we had over 50,000 boys and girls on playing on 4,200 teams, which is really exciting. It’s team golf, where they wear jerseys with numbers on the back, and it’s a scramble format, meaning every shot that a child makes doesn’t have to be great. They have a partner that might make an even better shot. It’s fun and exciting, and we’ve brought on new ambassadors like Steph Curry and Alex Morgan, who joined us to really get the word out to communities that we haven’t been able to reach in the past. We also have our ambassadors that are golfers, like Ricky Fowler, Rory McIlroy, Michelle Wie, and Lexi Thompson.

We’ve really seen great participation growth — almost 20% year-over-year. Approximately 25% of participants are girls, which for our business is exciting. It’s not where we need to be, but the growth is still exciting. We have close to 25% minorities playing junior golf. That’s also exciting. Again, we realize that’s not where we’d like to be, but we’re gaining on it. The support of PGA Jr. League by Dick’s Sports Foundation and its “Sports Matter” program has helped. That has provided us with the opportunity to offer scholarships to children who can’t afford to play on a PGA Jr. League team, and it has covered them for whatever amount we have requested. To date, nearly 2,200 scholarships have been provided to boys and girls nationwide.

Farrey: Golf is seen as an individual sport, but you obviously embrace this idea of making golf a team sport and a social experience, which is what kids want. Have you found that to be especially important when you’re trying to engage kids who are 12 and under?

Whaley: One key to the program is children learning from children, and not just learning from a coach. So, while we’re very proud of our PGA Professionals and our coaching backgrounds, what you see is these young boys and girls who are 13 mentoring the 9-year-olds, sharing with them how to make a strategic decision, helping them handle a poor shot, high-fiving them when it’s great, not having a parent tell them what club to hit, but having their peer tell them what club to hit, and going through that decision process together. And it doesn’t matter if a girl is your partner or a boy is your partner, it’s a team.

Farrey: So, you promote mixed-gender play. Up to what age in the team format?

Whaley: PGA Jr. League now has a 17U division, so all the way through 17-years old. What I’ve found on my teams is that none of these children are saying any longer, “I have to play with a boy” or “I have to play with a girl.” They’re all just golfers and teammates. That, to me, will be incredibly impactful when these children are 20 years old and show up to a golf course and are paired together with whomever and still go to play golf. The stigma of where they play, what tees they play – at PGA Jr. League – it doesn’t matter.

Farrey: It’s socially relevant too. It’s a time where we want boys and girls to understand the perspective of each other to see them as equals and peers.

Whaley: It’s so beneficial.

Farrey: What’s happening in terms of low-cost fee programs for youth?

Whaley: We’re working to renovate local and municipal golf courses to ensure their vitality within communities that have struggled. We have the opportunity to provide low-cost golf, to do exactly what you’re talking about: to give kids a safe haven, learn a sport that they can play for the rest of their life, where they walk, where they’re with friends, and where they’re outside. They’re in an environment typically coached by a PGA Professional who’s going to teach them everything golf provides – integrity, humility, sportsmanship and discipline.

We are huge advocates for ensuring youth have places to play, and on-course access is a big challenge for us. It’s difficult at private facilities, resorts, and sometimes at municipalities. We need to educate adults and the world that children need to be able to get outside and get on the course to love the game.

Farrey: What is the PGA of America’s position on multisport play?

Whaley: Long term athletic development has been a huge core commitment to coaching for us. PGA.coach gives our PGA professionals a great resource to understand the levels of those stages of learning and where other sports fit into those stages. We are encouraging no specialization until 14 or 15 years old within the game of golf. In 2020, we’ll put that out to consumers with a concerted effort with our allied organizations to promote, but right now it’s available to PGA Professionals. 

Farrey: In order for golf to grow, must other sports also encourage multisport play? 

Whaley: I think it is vital. Parents shouldn’t be told their sixth grader has to play soccer year-round to make the travel team. Your child should be playing multiple sports. Those of us who work in sports, we know children develop very differently. The superstar sixth-grader may not be the superstar ninth-grader. I think it’s incumbent on all that are involved in sport to be on the same page and understand that specialization for our children is really hurting their fun, and their ability to be elite. Let’s grasp the fact that we just want our children to be healthy and enjoy the process of learning a sport throughout their life, and not necessarily try to get a scholarship in the fifth grade.

Farrey: What do you see as the role of Project Play 2020 in creating the conditions for cooperation among sports and other leading organizations? 

Whaley: I think it’s so important to have an advocate like Project Play, which has the ears of multiple associations and sports industries in the country. If we can collaborate together to get as many children playing sports no matter their background, we have an opportunity to develop incredible young boys and girls, as well as men and women as they grow into adulthood. We’re excited to be a part of Project Play, the work you’re doing to get youth involved, and your ambassadors who are helping. We look to be great partners in that. 

Learn more about Project Play and Project Play 2020.