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Kids, parents not always welcome at golf courses

By Michael Patrick Shiels, Contributor

DETROIT - Perhaps when the European Ryder Cup team arrives in Michigan they can teach some of our golf operators a thing or two.

Is America really a good place to learn what golf is all about? Sure, we've got the best-conditioned golf courses, the most PGA professionals, an abundance of golf courses, and any type or style of equipment money can buy (either online or in one of many golf shops), but a recent visit to Scotland was a real eye-opener for me.

Oh, I'd been to Scotland on a few occasions in the past, but this trip, in the middle of August, took me away from some of the more touristy golf locations - such as the Old Course at St. Andrews and Turnberry - to some of the more hearty Scottish locations frequented by locals for well over 100 years.

They've been playing golf at the North Berwick Golf Club, for instance, since 1832. The golf course plays out along the southern shore of the Firth of Forth, and is probably best known for its' 15th hole, with its' original but often copied Redan-style green. Of most interest to me what that, like the Old Course at St. Andrews, the North Berwick course plays out of town then turns back and leads golfers back to the 18th green, which is literally in the corner of the picturesque, ancient town. The most unconventional and yet stirring aspect of playing North Berwick is that while you're making your way around the course (on foot only, of course) you'll encounter all sorts of people and activities: local people walking their dogs, flying kites, making their way to the beach, and children laughing and learning to play golf.

Most Scottish golf courses, and Irish ones too for that matter, are not wound with tight, boorish restraints that most American courses are burdened with. This case in point was made clearly upon my return to the United States.

My 7-year-old son has been hitting golf balls on the practice range and playing miniature golf since the age of two. He's also spent some time as a passenger on golf cart during rounds I've played, sometimes observing - sometimes playing electronic games on his Gameboy. He's attended tournaments, met professionals, watched golf on television, and even taken lessons. He's also played lots of rounds of Tiger Woods golf on his Play Station 2. He has a bag of U.S. Kids clubs, and in the pockets are golf balls and tees, a golf glove, a cap, sunscreen, and a few coins for making the ball.

Is my son ready for action? Yes and no. There are still the somewhat tricky matters of etiquette, safety, and rules to be learned and understood. So at 3:30 p.m. on a weekday afternoon, I took him to a quiet, local municipal par-3 golf course in the Detroit area. We approached the counter, and I encouraged him to communicate with the woman on his own and state his intentions. After all, he needed to learn how to register and pay his fees.

"Nine or 18" she asked tersely.

"Nine please," he answered.

The woman looked at both of us, then I explained that only my son would be playing while I carried his bag, steered him around and supervised him. She didn't even say a word. The just looked at me and deliberately shook her head "no."

I'll admit that my temper got the best of me. Without saying another word to the woman, I took my boy by the hand and led him back to the car. I explained our departure by telling him, "We don't spend money with unfriendly people."

Next stop - another small, par-3 course. I carried my son's clubs and we walked into the golf shop. The first words of the cranky old man behind the counter, before any type of greeting, were, "You shouldn't bring golf clubs into the clubhouse."

OK fine, I turned on my heels and took his little bag of four clubs and set them outside the door. When I returned, I explained to the man that I'd like to take Harrison out and supervise him while we walk nine holes.

"Do you each have his own clubs," the old man asked.

"Yes, but I won't be playing. I'll just be supervising."

"No. You can't do that," the man said.

"You mean, even though I'm not playing, you want me to pay, too?" I asked.

"You have to pay and you have to play. No walkers."

The man was insisting that, instead of just supervising my son, I would have to pay green fees, drag my bag around and play too.

"Insurance reasons," the man kept repeating. "Insurance reasons."

Meanwhile, I looked out the window of the golf shop to see a five-some on the sixth green drinking beer - one of them shirtless. But those jamochs are beside the point.

These were both daily fee courses that rely on repeat business and satisfying customers. Am I going back to either of those places? No chance.

The green fee was nominal - about $9, but the chilly reception and sour attitudes were puzzling. Why not welcome a father bringing his son - or mother bringing her daughter, for that matter - who is trying to expose his or her child to the game in an appropriate, responsible manner? For heaven's sake, any golf course with foresight would promote such an activity - especially at certain times of the day when play might otherwise be slow. How else are young people, the next generation of customers, going to learn?

Maybe there are valid insurance reasons to charge a fee for a father who is supervising his son and make him tote his clubs along too…or maybe not. If so, we've yet again found a way to remove the heart and soul from the game of golf.

I contacted the management of both golf courses to get a better explanation. I received a phone call and an emailed response from the PGA professional that has managed the course for many years and wanted to explain his "no walkers" policy.

Among the highlights of his communication were: "We, in the past, have had people tell us they wanted to just walk along. Later, we find them playing once they get out on the course. I certainly understand that this was not your intention, but we have also had men come out to play and bring their young children out to walk along with them. The guy is trying to play and watch his kids at the same time. The kids start running around and we get complaints from other golfers.

I've never been comfortable, from a liability standpoint, of someone getting injured on the course when they are not a signed-in, paid player. I do not believe this would set well with my supervisors or our insurance people.

Mr. Shiels, I do not believe that our ‘No Walkers' policy is unfair or uncommon. I certainly understand that you were just trying to help in your son's development and were encouraging him to play the game. There certainly wasn't anything wrong with your intentions. I am going to evaluate this policy. Possibly, there needs to be room for some discretion."

I appreciate the candor and frankness of his letter, and I also appreciate his last statement that there maybe some room for discretion. Based on his response, and the comments I've received from other golf course operators and PGA professionals, here are some suggestions.

1. Children playing golf may be accompanied by a non-playing, supervising parent or guardian at any time. (Walking only.)
2. The parent will sign a simple "hold harmless" waiver before the round, for insurance purposes. Such a waiver exists when you rent a power cart and is often printed on the back of tickets to any sporting event.
3. Parents playing may be accompanied by one non-playing child, and are solely responsible for that child's safety and behavior. (Walking or riding, though the child may not drive the power cart.)
4. Just as all golfers should, parents shall be responsible for making certain the group keeps up with the group in front of them. Slow players holding up play may be asked to skip a hole to catch up or to leave the golf course if they cannot keep up. (Children should learn that speedy play is important!).

Finally, one last note: Whether you're supervising a child or encouraging a novice to play golf, the golf course is no place to teach fundamentals. Learning to hit the ball, chip and putt is an exercise meant for the driving range and practice green, not the first tee. You wouldn't send a novice skier up a chair lift without teaching the fundamentals, nor should you send a golfer out to the course unprepared.

The PGA of America seems to be recognizing the challenges of youth golf. The PGA, along with the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) have teamed to promote Kids Play Free at America's Courses, a nationwide family golf program at municipal courses in three cities. The joint effort is part of The PGA's Play Golf America marketing campaign to increase participation in golf.

The grass roots pilot program, "Kids Play Free at America's Courses," is being conducted this year through the support of park system management and PGA professionals at municipal facilities in Cincinnati and Milwaukee. The program involves juniors playing free of charge when accompanied by a full paying adult. The results of this pilot program will help shape this and other family programs to be promoted to municipal course operators nationwide over the coming years.

"The future of the growth of golf in America lies at the grass roots level, and the Kids Play Free program offers one of those pathways," said PGA of America President M.G. Orender. "We believe this program can serve as a model for other cities. Parks and recreation sources are at the crossroads of sport in America providing facility access, introductory experiences and lifelong play that contribute to a better quality of life. We believe PGA Professionals may reach new audiences and establish enviable standards for sustaining municipal golf in the future."

You can find a variety of family programs available in their local communities by visiting playgolfamerica.com, a site that continues to expand as a resource for affordable golf instruction programs and events that fit a family's busy schedule.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • kids & golf

    JDP wrote on: Jan 9, 2006

    We started our boy in golf very early--3 years old. He would watch me at the range and he began swinging. On the golf course we'd put him at 50 or 100 yards (at 4 & 5 years old) and he'd play the hole in. No delays to other groups and we were vigilant with pace of play. We also spent hours on the chipping and putting greens making up every sort of game imaginable.
    He's 10 and still loves it--although he's starting to beat me on ocassion.


  • kids & golf

    leo wrote on: Sep 26, 2005

    I live in australia and am lucky to be a member of a fantastic golf course, my home course hosts the NSW OPEN (state open) so its not a ordinary course by any means nor is it elitist.
    It does however have a FANTASTIC junior programme where EVERY sunday afternoon(3:30pm in daylight saving and 12:00pm otherwise)the course pro and the junior manager will take out as many kids as turn up, far from being a nuisance most menbers drop their kids of whle they play there own game and ofcourse some parents like to caddy for the kids to make it that little bit special.


  • Kid's golf

    Thor Kakar wrote on: Nov 10, 2004

    I play golf with my 7 year old son quite frequently. I hit my tee shot, he hits his, and we both play our won balls. However, if his play slows down and we find that we are not staying with the group ahead of us or are not staying within the recommended time limits of the round, he will hit his tee shot, then pick it up and advance his ball to mine. Because of this, he actually plays faster than an adult. No course Superintendent should have a problem with this.


    • RE: Kid's golf

      Tracy Shand wrote on: Apr 4, 2005

      I believe Thor is correct.
      Hope you enjoy many rounds of this "wonderful family opportunity" with your son.
      Take good care,
      Tracy Shand


      • RE: RE: Kid's golf

        Thor Kakar wrote on: Apr 15, 2005

        Hiya, how are ya Tracy. Do I detect a hint of sarcasm in your voice?


        • RE: RE: RE: Kid's golf

          JDoe wrote on: Apr 15, 2005

          I think so.


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