Get Out and Play

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With new programs and simplified strategies for playing a round together, there’s never been a better time to explore the game of golf as a family.

By Dale Leatherman

As multigenerational travel continues to rise so do shared experiences such as golfing. It’s becoming a common sight on the course to see grandparents, who have been golfing for years, teaching the basics to their young grandchildren as the parents work on improving their game. Suzy Whaley, the PGA director of instruction and a former LPGA star, points out that four generations of golfers can easily play together, even with vastly different skill levels. “There’s no other sport in which you can do that,” she says.

Playing as a family is also another way to bond. “Golf provides families with a unique opportunity for uninterrupted time together,” says John Wade, head golf professional at Sea Island Golf Club. “It’s also a chance for parents to teach honesty, accountability, following the rules, etiquette and how to conduct yourself under various circumstances. As we know, golf is a great platform for learning those qualities.”

Chrissy Felton, an instructor and group golf professional at the Sea Island Golf Performance Center, is a strong advocate of family golf and has seen the numbers increase in recent years. She has also seen new ways of playing grow out of this trend. “When I have a family with one skilled player and two or three beginners, I suggest playing nine holes in a scramble format to keep up the pace and allow beginners to hit the ball under less pressure,” she says. “Everyone putts out to get the feeling of finishing the hole. In this way, beginners learn how the game is played and everyone has a good time.”

PGA Junior League Golf

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In PGA Junior League Golf, those age 13 and under learn the game while playing on teams with peers. | Photo courtesy of The PGA of America

The PGA has also been looking at ways to  promote and grow the game of golf at all levels. Today it’s behind dynamic initiatives such as Get Golf Ready, geared toward adult golfers of all skill levels, and PGA Junior League Golf, which appeals to golfers ages 13 and under. The two programs have been hugely successful at reinvigorating lapsed golfers and attracting people who have never picked up a club before. Because of the synergy between the initiatives, family golf is emerging as an exciting area of growth for the sport. 

“It builds confidence and character and encourages perseverance, determination and hard work,” Whaley says. “Ups and downs on the course teach sportsmanship and etiquette, and there are the obvious health benefits. When you’re playing on a beautiful course, it doesn’t matter if you’re the best or worst athlete out there, you’re engaged in an athletic activity and it’s going to be enjoyable.”

Whaley’s husband, a PGA instructor, and two daughters, who play collegiate golf, are prime examples of a family that has bonded together over the game and the many lessons it teaches.

Teaching these valuable life lessons is one of the core aspects of the PGA Junior League Golf. The initiative aims to attract younger generations to the game by likening it to other recreational youth sports. Participants wear numbered jerseys and play on teams with their peers. In addition to learning the basics, they also have the opportunity to sharpen their skills with PGA and LPGA professionals and to put those skills to use at competitions.

“As PGA professionals, we’re always trying to grow the game,” Whaley says. “Obviously, the youth program is a key component, as [the participants] will be our consumers for years to come. Golf is a game for a lifetime, so the sooner we get a child to play, the more opportunity we have to keep him or her in the sport for a long time.”

Whaley, who is active in PGA Junior League Golf, says it has led to growth in her other programs. “Parents, grandparents and friends come out to cheer for them, just like in other sports,” she explains. “What spectators see—even if they’re not golfers—is the wonderful opportunity golf provides. The atmosphere is safe, healthy and friendly, with great camaraderie—everything [parents] look for.”

The draws for both parents and their children have resulted in a substantial following for the program in the last year alone. “Junior golf has grown tremendously in just a few years,” Whaley explains. “In 2015, the PGA Junior League had about 30,000 kids playing on 2,500 teams—almost double what it was in 2014.

“Participation in Junior League play leads to youngsters wanting to improve—to go [to] the range, to take lessons and to play with their friends—and their parents are joining them,” Whaley adds. “It’s creating golfing families.”

The Get Golf Ready program for adults, now in its eighth year, is also experiencing positive effects. “It’s incredibly successful, with an 87 percent retention rate,” Whaley says. “You get five lessons and on-course opportunities with PGA or LPGA professionals.”

The Right Clubs

As families begin to play more and more as a group, it’s important not to let kids get distracted with too many tools. “A child learning the game doesn’t need 14 clubs. It causes too much confusion,” Whaley advises. “Take a putter, pitching wedge, 7-iron and something to get off the tee.”

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Golf provides family time for Suzy Whaley, PGA director of instruction, and her daughter (left). | Photo courtesy of The PGA of America

At first, beginners of all ages can use rental clubs. When they’re ready to buy their own, Whaley recommends going to a club fitter. “I hear people say ‘I’m not good enough to be fit,’ ” she says. “It should be the opposite: Get fitted for clubs because it will help you perform better. There are so many options now for women, men and juniors. Youngsters need junior clubs that get the ball up in the air, not cut-down adult clubs that are too stiff.”

Whaley also cautions parents against coaching all the time, which can be exhausting and create apprehension for the child. “It’s OK to tell children they can hit their 7-irons all the way to the green,” she says. “With fewer club choices, kids figure out pretty quickly how to work the clubface and how to make the ball go low and high. As they get better, they’ll want more choices, but when they’re learning I’d rather they have more fun and less angst.

“Sometimes we make golf far harder than it needs to be,” Whaley continues. “Players should set goals, such as trying to make a 6 on a par 3. When they can do that, let’s move back and try to make a 5. For some reason we’ve placed a high standard on the game, so we feel terrible if we don’t shoot par. … I wish we had double par on score cards so people could feel great about shooting under it.”

No matter the score or skill levels, the world of golf has grown to accommodate players of all kinds. “It’s all about finding a place … where the atmosphere is warm and welcoming and you can find a game and get lessons,” Whaley says. “The First Tee and some nonprofits offer golf programs in school physical education classes. In many areas of the country, kids play free with parents. There are a multitude of options for everyone, and golf has never been more accessible or welcoming.”

If junior or family tees don’t exist on a course, Whaley encourages families to play from distances that allow all participants to have fun without bogging down the pace of play. “At first, I have families tee off
at the 200-yard marker,” Whaley says. “When everyone can break double par on every hole, I have them move back to the 250-yard marker.”

“I tell experienced adults playing with beginners that they should enjoy it, but it can’t be about scoring their best round,” Felton adds. “It’s about new golfers learning etiquette, how to keep score and what’s appropriate—all in a fun way, without intimidation.” 


Family Play Time

Sea Island welcomes players of all ages to its golf courses. “We’ve placed family tees on the Retreat and Plantation courses with their own scorecards,” says John Wade, head golf pro at Sea Island, explaining that families can also choose to play nine holes instead of all 18. Golfers under the age of 19 also don’t pay green fees at Sea Island.

“A couples’ event is held one Sunday a month to encourage spouses to play together,” adds Chrissy Felton, an instructor and group golf professional at the Sea Island Golf Performance Center. “We also have a Sea Island Junior Tour and PGA Junior League teams.”

Assistant instructor Lindy LaBauve is a third-generation golfer who grew up playing with her family on
Sea Island. Her grandfather, Jack Lumpkin, and father, Mike LaBauve, are two of Golf Digest’s top 50 instructors and her mother, Sandy LaBauve, is a top 100 instructor.

“Sea Island is the ultimate place to learn golf and play with family,” says the youngest LaBauve. “We offer clinics for juniors and adults throughout the week, and a family clinic on Sundays. … Our family tees make challenging courses playable for even the newest golfers. Sea Island is home to golfers ranging from [PGA] Tour pros to those just learning the game. The scenery and great golf atmosphere make this a special place for so many people. You can’t really have a bad day here.”

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