ST ANDREWS, SCOTLAND | The week of the Dunhill Links Championship spelled the end of the 2022 championship season in St Andrews. Though the weather served both as a reminder of summer and winter warnings, there were plenty of signs of new beginnings. For me, at least, these started with the party of nursery-school children who were being escorted down the first hole in their high-visibility yellow jackets on the Thursday.
You doubted whether any of them knew the first thing about the tournament players, but had this charming little crew been on a visit to the local zoo, they could not have looked more excited.
Still earlier in that week, Laurie Watson, head of Communications at the St Andrews Links Trust, had boasted of the Trust celebrating the 20th anniversary of its junior coaching program. The scheme in question is called SALJGA (St Andrews Links Junior Golf Association) and, for the past two decades, it has been delivering free golf tuition to all the Under-16s in and around the town.
What makes these celebrations worthy of mention is that 20 years is entirely long enough to gauge the program’s success.
“We haven’t,” chuckled Watson, “turned out a major champion as yet, but what we have got are plenty of single-figure and plus handicap boys and girls, some of whom have taken up golf scholarships in the States.”
As you would expect, the teenagers concerned have every chance of making a good impression with their applications. If, say, they are asked to submit details of work experience, they will mostly be able to add to their CVs with tales of caddying on the Old Course.
The SALJGA plan came into being at much the same time as the Links Trust’s new practice range was installed beyond the Old Course Hotel. Such is the facility’s size that as many as nine fully qualified PGA teaching professionals were soon taken on board. Ever since, primary and secondary school children have come under their wing for 10-week coaching spells on the Balgove course.
The selection process is pretty straightforward. Every child who attends one of the town’s state schools is eligible, as are all those who are bussed into these establishments from outlying areas. The golf lessons, incidentally, are not offering a happy alternative to one of the less appetizing school subjects: they all happen in after-school hours.
“(Victor Perez is) terrific with them. They all get to know him and he’s always happy to chat and give them a helping hand.” – Laurie Watson
What else? All the students are able to play – again, free of charge – on the Balgove course whenever they want. In the process, Watson says they pick up on what golf offers in terms of etiquette and making the best use of spare time. By all accounts, there is far less in the way of hanging around the local streets than there used to be.
It helps, of course, that the aspiring golfers have the best of role models at the range in Victor Perez. The Frenchman, who won the Dunhill Links championship in 2019, and the Dutch Open earlier this year, lives in Dundee with his partner, Abigail, whose job – she is a dentist – demands much the same level of precision as his own.
Whenever Perez is taking a break from the DP World Tour, he can be found on the range, often at the same time as the schoolchildren. “He’s terrific with them,” says Watson, “They all get to know him and he’s always happy to chat and give them a helping hand.”
There will be plenty of Scots who are asking themselves what happened to that old program which promised to have every child under the age of 9 introduced to golf. The idea was that the project would tick a few boxes in making Scotland a stand-out amid the countries bidding to host the 2010 Ryder Cup. Alas, the idea failed to catch on as anticipated in that the hierarchy had overlooked the fact that golf clubs were never going to welcome little kids who would need man-to-man marking. Wales, incidentally, came out on top in the bidding process for the 2010 match, with Celtic Manor the course of choice. Meanwhile Scotland had its turn at Gleneagles in 2014.
Of course, golf at St Andrews is so not just for Scots and, again during the Dunhill, the fans included a group of top junior golfers from Ukraine who were interviewed by Nick Dougherty on Sky. These golf-loving teenagers, who were staying at the Macdonald Cardrona Hotel in Peebles, told the newly appointed President of the Golf Foundation how much it meant to them to be back in the fold after a year in which their golfing dreams had been decimated by war.
These visitors could not have felt more happily at home in St Andrews.
As, of course, applies to virtually every other golfer – good, bad and indifferent – in what is the so-called Home of Golf.
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