In Their Own Words - US Kids Golf

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A Conversation with Dan Van Horn
 
U.S. Kids Golf was started in January, 1997, as a solution to the problem its founder, Dan Van Horn, had when getting his kids into golf. His children, ages 3 and 6, were enthusiastic at first, but their interest quickly dropped.
 
'They weren't having fun,' Van Horn recalls. 'It seemed that they lost interest after only 15 minutes. At the time, I didn't know cutoffs and junior clubs were so heavy. They were not only hurting my kids' swings, but also their desire to play.'
 
That's when Dan Van Horn began developing Ultralight Kidsklubs, designed to be 25% lighter than adult and most junior clubs, and formed the company U.S. Kids Golf.
 
Casey / Q:
Dan, you seem to be a man on a missiona good mission.
 
Dan / A:
It is kind of a mission Im ongrowing the game, getting kids involved the right way ' from the beginning ' in the greatest game I know. That translates in to my kids and everyone elses kids.
 
Casey / Q:
Are the powers-to-be in golf doing the right things in terms of getting the game to grow in a positive fashion?
 
Dan / A:
I think theres a few things that are in the right direction. I dont think theyre doing nearly enough to compete with the other sports programs that exist today.
 
Casey / Q:
What do you think are the current major barriers to junior golf growth?
 
Dan / A:
The course itself. The ideas always been that kids need to start on a shorter course and play by themselves. And I think that most kids need to start with their parents. So I think it just starts with course set-up and also having good equipment that kids can swing. But, after that, it starts with course set-up. Except for about 550 courses that weve been able to retrofit with Family Course Set-up (the use of fairway plates to create shorter tee box distances) every course that I know of is like an intermediate to advanced ski slope and not appropriate for kids. So, parents start kids just somewhere in the fairway. But this sends the wrong message. It says to kids they basically dont deserve to have tees. It flies in the face of learning the game properly from the beginning. The ski industry would never do that. If they did, they wouldnt sell many family packages. So I think we have to learn from the ski industry on this one.
 
Casey / Q:
Tell us more about the Family Course Set-Up system.
 
Dan / A:
We started the Family Course Set-Up with using personal tee plates. We initiated that program where there would be two sets of plates in the fairway forward of the red tees that would allow young kids ' four, five, six ' to play with their parents. And from that, once they play, they can go on our web site and they can post their score, count their putts, keep track of their rounds, stuff like that. And those things are for free.
 
Casey / Q:
The personal tee plates are just one of several things you advocate.
 
Dan / A:
Thats right. Weve started competitions because we think competition is a very fundamental truth to anybody wanting to learn the game. Our local tours and state and world championship programs bring a lot of kids in to the game. Additionally, weve developed a curriculum for kids thats equivalent to what I would consider elementary school. It starts with Early Start which is a parents guide on how to bring kids in to the game. It has four levels that kind of gets a young player up through elementary school. Primarily, the effort there is to develop a text book that makes it easy to get started and becomes more complex the farther the student progresses. Somewhat modeled after Karateto have something for the kids to go afterlike the color levels of Karate belts. It also creates a structure for the teachers to have a vernacular to use.
 
Casey / Q:
The thing that I notice most about your competitions is the structure.
 
Dan / A:
Thanks for noticing. Its important. Competition is presented as real and having meaning. Part of the motivation for kids getting involved in sports is to put on the uniform and go play and know theyre playing for something ' to win and to lose ' and thats really part of life. Were bringing that to golf. And if we dont bring it to golf it will be too unstructured. There will be recreational play, but, we as an industry wont have anything thats equivalent to the programs in the other sports. Thats why its important for golf to take the junior game seriously on every level.
 
Casey / Q:
What kind of impact did Tiger have on growing the game at the junior leveland now Michelle Wie coming on the scene?
 
Dan / A:
I think golf turned the corner when Tiger came through. And for Michelle Wie to come along and bring that same kind of excitement to womens golf as well as the other young players on the LPGA Tour, its fantastic. Golf needed to have some younger players come through and do well and care about the whole idea of starting early. We would definitely say that Tiger and Michelle are helping us along and helping to grow the industry and the game. But, that in itself wont do it because its still the parent. And whats happening is that Tiger gives the parent encouragement to say, well, Im going to get my kid to get started in golfthat this is just as important as the other sports. They say, wow, look at what Tiger can do. I wish I had played golf as a kid. Im going to make sure my son or daughter learns to play golf. The message that Tiger and Michelle help send is golf is something a child should start early. I dont think any parent is saying today I think it would be terrible if my kid was the next Tiger Woods. So I think it is wonderful that the young successful players in the public eye, like Tiger and Michelle, get the parents saying, gosh, why not get my kid started early.
 
Casey / Q:
You always come back to the parents.
 
Dan / A:
It takes a parent to bring a kid to the game. The kids can look at it on TV and see Tiger and say thats cool, but, there are still so many other distractions and interests in their lives that the choice outside of their parents making the conscious decision that golf is something they want to get their kids to do ' as it would be with piano, or soccer or anything really ' schooland so parents really do make a conscious choice and have to go to a lot of effort. Its not like you can youre your kids over to the local field and play in the soccer league or on a little league field. You have to drive them to a club and you have to be there with them. Its not a drop off at school sport. Some kids seem to be motivated by just the pure joy of hitting balls and some of the kids are motivated by Tiger and hes their hero. I mean we see it all the time. Hes the number one person in golf the kids like. But, there are still so many hurtles that without the parent involved it makes it really difficult.
 
Casey / Q:
Is girls golf ready to explode?
 
Dan / A:
Michelle Wie helps. Again, it brings interest to the game for the same reason Tiger initially brought interest. You know, girls softball is going through an explosion right now to the point where little league has become a softball program for girls. It looks to me like golf is going to be the next thing that breaks open for girls. And its not just Michelle. Its the phenomenal crop of young players coming through the LPGA Tourthe Paula Creamers of the world; Morgan Pressel in the spotlightthe tour is starting to get more interesting. Michelle Wie will add greatly to that but other players do as well. And the LPGA Tour needed this kind of boost.
 
Casey / Q:
Do you like what you see happening in womens golf?
 
Dan / A:
Womens golf is getting very exciting. I mean, the U.S. Womens Amateur Champion, Morgan Presselpeople are watching that now. In fact, thanks to The Golf Channel for that coverage. I think also there are some women coming through and being the groundbreakers for a new look on the LPGA Tour. Theyre attractive and yet still excellent physical athletes, and its OK to be that way. You know, I see my daughter reacting to it and its OK to be physicalto really take a rip at the balland still be feminine. And I think a lot of the junior girls are adopting this attitude that they see with the new crop of players on the LPGA Tour and even the girls playing college golf.
 
Casey / Q:
So the junior girls market is one you believe strongly in?
 
Dan / A:
U.S. Kids Golf may have been a little ahead of the curve on the growth of and interest in girls golf. Weve always made sure that not only do boys have good equipment to learn and play the game, but, young girls can also get properly outfitted. Not only is the equipment suited to their strength levels, its also aesthetically pleasing ' pink and the lavender colors for example. Angela German, a fine player on the LPGA Tour, has come on as a spokesperson for the company. So this girls playing golf thing is something the company has had its eye on for quite some time.
 
Casey / Q:
Why is it important for juniors to have the right equipment?
 
Dan / A:
Having the right equipment for juniors makes learning proper swing fundamentals easier. Its that simple. If you like to be able to see the ball go higher and farther, then you need the right junior equipment. The idea of taking mom and dads old clubs and hitting them may be financially the first thing on a parents mind, but, its the worst thing for the child in terms of helping them develop as players and making the game fun for them. Nothing speaks like results and equipment that helps kids see results immediately makes all the difference.
 
Casey / Q:
Adults certainly seem to be focused on getting equipment that helps them play better golf. But, youre saying theres not enough attention being paid to junior golf needs?
 
Dan / A:
Im really amazed that with all the work weve done to help people understand how important equipment is that people will still go out and cut down their clubs to give to their kids. I think its somewhat age related. When a kid gets to be eight or nine or maybe eleven parents think the children can handle adult clubs. I still have pictures of myself doing that for my children ' cutting down old sets of my clubs for them ' because that was the paradigm in that era. But so much of that has changed, fortunately, for the kids. But we have to do more to get the message out about properly fitting junior golfer with the right equipment.
 
Casey / Q:
Clearly, though, many of the greatest players in the world learned to play at a time when cutting adult clubs down was the only option.
 
Dan / A:
Thats true. But, thats the one percent story I like to tell. The one percent story has to do with Nancy Lopez. I think Nancy Lopez represents one percent of women that could get through the heavy clubs and you can see in her swing how she had to manipulate her body to load it up in the right hand and get the club back over the top of her head. The club forms the swing and it should be that the swing ought to release naturally from the player. And anytime you have clubs where you have to manipulate it ' and teachers are now seeing this everywhere and calling us and talking to us about it ' having a club be too heavy and too stiff and a child having to manipulate to swing is something we see all the time still. And so have clubs that are too heavy and forming the swingit keeps the swing from being a late release, high swing-speed swing. The improper equipment keeps the swing from developing properly. There are already too many hurtles to overcome in golf to have to also overcome equipment that hurts kids rather than helps kids. If you take Nancy Lopez as an example, a kid could potentially succeed learning to play with heavy adult equipmentbut she is the exception and not the rule. But it sure will be less fun for a kid to learn with the wrong equipment.
 
Casey / Q:
What is the U.S. Kids Golf design process like?
 
Dan / A:
Well, Im the engineer here, so, I get involved in the product design. We have the benefit of trailing the adult equipment a little bit so they, I guess you would say, inspire us in terms of design and development. Were about a year behind the major manufacturers in terms of applying the latest and greatest in technology to what we know works for junior equipment in terms of weight and flex specific to kids. Our factories, set up the same as theirs, are then capable of using the materials once they get a little more common and available. Its not our intent to spend so much money in product development that we then have to charge so much money ' or too much money ' for it. Therefore, we can come behind the OEMs when the price for material and technology is more reasonable and then tailor the product in to the lighter materials that we use to make it easy for kids to swing. In a sense, we get inspiration from the major manufacturers, then theres our own development and we use our own specs, our own shafts to get the performance characteristics were looking for. Weve discovered its a fine line between too light and too much shaft flex versus too heavy and too stiff of a shaft flex to give a child the kind of club performance that will help them swing better. And then there are differences in weight and flex from one age bracket to another.
 
Casey / Q:
Are you surprised at all by the growth and success of U.S. Kids Golf?
 
Dan / A:
People ask me that. I feel like were only beginning. In a way, were kind of at the end of the beginning. I think weve got a long way to go. I mean, not just U.S. Kids Golf, but I mean the whole industryI think well all be surprised at exactly how big junior golf will be in ten years. I think things will be totally different and youth golf will be alive and well and vigorous and I think the industry will look back on it and say gosh, we should have done that a long time ago but Im glad were doing it now. But for me, its like putting a computer in every house way back in the beginning of the personal computer boom. And I still think we can look at equipment specifically for juniors as being in the early stages. There are three million young kids out there playing who are twelve and under and baseball has six million. Of the three million young kids playing golf only maybe about 100,000 are playing in tournaments. I think the challenge for us and the industry is to get that group of three million kids and get them in formally structured youth golf events playingnot just playing sometimes when their mom or dad happen to take them out on the course. I think the whole structure of organized competition in a reasonable fashion, like little league, has got to be developed and thats what were trying to do. Thats what our plans are for the future.
 
Casey / Q:
The USGA talks often about growing the game. Are they doing the right things?
 
Dan / A:
The thing the USGA could do the most to help grow the game at the junior level would be to encourage courses, or to provide themselves, these Family Course Set-Up plates that were using so kids can feel like they have a structured place to play. Theyre only ten dollars apiece. You need two of them on a hole and you need a scorecard. And the way they could do that is to come off their handicapping system a little bit because it doesnt work exactly the way theyve got it in terms of how courses are rated for play. If you want kids to be able to become familiar with how the USGAs handicap system works, there would have to be some adjustment to accommodate the junior course set-up plates. But the main thing is to have proper junior course set-up and thats where the USGA could influence golf courses around the country. And theres no reason not to.
 
Casey / Q:
Is golf course length a barrier in general in golf?
 
Dan / A:
Well, lets take women golfers. I mean, most of them shouldnt start from the red teesits too far and takes them too long to play a round of golf and thats why the men complain about them. Play shorter courses, have more fun, play fasterevery one is happy. Well, kids are the same way. Young kids need to play really short holes. Kids who have played a little bit need to play medium short. And bigger kids who have played a while can play on the reds or back. But golf courses are set up wrong for family play and I think the USGA can do something about that. Its no fun to play a golf course that is too long. And kids, especially young kids, even if they play the red tees, the course is going to be way too long. And if mom and dad just drop the kids ball in the middle of the fairway with no marked tees and no structure, then the kids are getting robbed of the fundamental structured nature of the game. Theyre not experiencing golf the way it should be experienced. I guess you could take your kids to a par-3 course or drop them off and let them play there, but why not use the home course ' where the whole family can play together ' as the key to getting kids started in the game properly.
 
Casey / Q:
What about the economics of getting kids started in golf?
 
Dan / A:
A lot of golf course owners are starting to see that kids should be allowed to play at a reduced rate or even for free at certain times. And if you reduce rates for the parents at certain times if they play with their childrenwell, then, thats where youre creating incentive for parents to bring their kids. Parents win ' they get to play for a good rate. Kids win ' theyre learning the best game at an early age. And golf wins ' the game is growing and staying young and fresh. So Im not saying free. We dont give golf clubs away. But it should be cheaper for kids and courses should have the flexibility to be set up for kids.especially if you offer these types of deals when the golf course isnt full.
 
Casey / Q:
So maybe its as much about getting the Golf Course Owners Association as it is the USGA?
 
Dan / A:
Thats a good point. Its a mind set. Instead of golf course owners and management companies looking at kids and family golf as a burden, they should look at it as an opportunity. I mean, where do they think the next wave of golfers will come from? Grow the game at the family and junior level and youve got people hooked on golf for life. Thats what the game needs. Its going to happen. Right now things are just kind of ramping up. But when the big move to promote and foster family and junior golf happens its going to come like a landslide. I have faith that the people in control of how golf grows will see the light sooner than later.
 
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