This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 Issue of Stick & Hack Magazine. Click here to become a subscriber, and get Stick & Hack Magazine delivered straight to your door four times a year.

Parents and coaches are exploring new ways to introduce junior golfers to the game.

When a child picks up a golf club for the first time, they’re inclined to hit something. It might be the ball. It might be the Earth. It might be – yikes! – the leg of a parent.

This is Junior Golf at its most innocent and most unpredictable level. Whether that youngster becomes a lifelong golfer depends on many factors, not the least of which is the parental approach to the game.

Golf pro and teacher Gavin Parker, who has built a name for himself as the “CEO of Junior Golf,” says the best approach is to make instruction fun while avoiding repetitive drills and swing “techniques” for kids making their first steps in the game.

“Junior Golf is a choice, not a chore,” Parker said. “You grow the game by making it self-expressive. You allow kids to become more proficient at swinging the club but also using the best parts of increasing touches of the ball and of trying new things. It’s not about doing some BS drill that’s all about who gets closer to the hole.”

Parker, who works at Salisbury Country Club in Midlothian, Va., has become a star of social media with TikTok posts that celebrate the fun associated with golf. As he puts it, his job is to, “cultivate fulfillment and spread joy instead of just focusing on improving the score.”

Parker and other Junior Golf instructors face the sometimes hard reality that many kids care more about what’s happening on their cellphones and tablets than they do moving around outside and playing with friends.

“I’m being assassinated by screens,” Parker said. “I’m doing everything I can to capture kids’ attention, but are we really growing the game of golf? I don’t know that answer, but I’m doing everything in my power to learn what kids are into.

“Right now kids are using their screens to watch other kids play video games. It’s crushing kids. I’m studying how to create connections outside and make connections face-to-face and help kids become part of a tribe. It’s a deeper-level connection with others, more than any video game could ever do. But you have to get them off screens and get them into golf.”

Adam Ross, a middle school teacher and a scratch golfer who lives in Noblesville, Ind., has two daughters – Taylor, 9, and Allie, 6. They all play the game. Although Taylor already has had considerable success in Junior Golf tournaments, Ross endorses the idea that the game can overwhelm youngsters and that a fun approach is preferred.

“I think it’s important how it’s presented,” he said. “If you start out hitting balls around the green and trying to make it fun, it’s easier to get into. Some kids get turned off when they go out and play with Mom and Dad. They’re playing 18 holes, and it’s the same thing for four hours. You have to think about a kid’s ability to pay attention and be engaged while having a good time.

“One of the things we did with Taylor is to let her pick out golf outfits and try and match shirts and skirts. We pitched it from a fashion aspect, as well. There’s a lot more to it than throwing a ball into the hole. We wanted her to play a game for her whole life and enjoy it and make friends.” Taylor has played in local and state-level junior tournaments, and Ross said it is there that both the good and bad of Junior Golf can be found.

“There are a lot of parents out there who have expectations of their kids to perform and hit good shots all the time,” he said. “There are a lot of tears at Junior Golf tournaments. Kids don’t necessarily have a set expectation for a shot. Some wonder if it met the parents’ expectations, and I try to distance myself from that as much as possible. I let Taylor set expectations.”

Junior Golf (roughly defined as ages 6-17) happens across the country, from individual kids taking lessons from the local public course pro to “academies” that do instruction on levels from beginner to advanced. Many young players have grown up near the game because their parents and grandparents have been long-time members of country clubs; others see tournaments on TV and wonder how hard it might be to play.

U.S. Kids Golf, which holds tournaments across the country and offers graduated levels of instruction for Junior players, lists its mission as helping kids “have fun learning the lifelong game of golf and to encourage family interaction that builds lasting memories.” Its philosophy includes working with young players while their parents participate in the learning.

One of the biggest events for Junior golfers is the Drive, Chip, and Putt Championship sponsored by the United States Golf Association, the PGA of America, and the Master’s Tournament. The national finals of the event, for golfers ages 7 to 15, are held at Augusta National. The popular First Tee program, for players ages 5 to 18, teaches the fundamentals of the game while stressing integrity, respect and perseverance. Steve Goforth, a teaching pro at Cross Creek Country Club in South Carolina, said Junior Golf has been impacted positively by programs that group kids in a fun environment.

“That has really helped get kids interested in the game,” Goforth said. “You have to make it fun. They get to play and practice with other golfers their same age. Programs like the First Tee and the PGA Junior League have made it kind of like a soccer team or basketball team.

That makes it more about a community.” Goforth, who has a golf podcast and operates Goforth Golf Instruction, said kids younger than 7 can learn to enjoy golf with the proper approach.

“I tell parents to put a club in their hand and let them have a good time, not to put any pressure on them,” he said. “Teach them some basics but don’t get too complicated with it.”

He suggested allowing children to “create their own par, in other words a par 4 might be a par 8 and a par 5 might be a par 10. They can work their way down as they get better.”

Parker says working with kids is wonderful but that the search for the next generation of golfers is a tough one.

“There are about 137,000 kids of Junior age in my county, and I only have 205 in my program,” he said. “Kids aren’t that inclined to play golf. It’s too hard. You’re solitaire. Kids want to be part of the same collaborative mission and be together.”

Parker mixes golf with music and what he calls cooperation and team building. “It’s not about just trying to teach kids grip,” he said.

“I try to bridge the gap and create a more distilled version of golf. I want to attract them instead of boring them to death with rules and saying ‘Hold it like this’ and saying you have to be in a collared shirt.”

For example, Parker said, he challenges kids to make a hundred-foot putt, obviously not an easy thing for anyone.

“When they say they can’t, I say, ‘Well, I’ll let you move 20 feet closer if you can make five five-foot putts in a row.’ I try to bring some randomness and elements of chance into it so kids can strategize and have more fun.”

Ultimately, some of them will be the professional golfers of tomorrow. A bigger number will learn to appreciate a game they might play for the rest of their lives.