South Africa’s Brandon Stone, the defending champion in this week’s Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open, did not take long to issue a cheerful warning. “I think we might be the biggest mob out here but, if you think that 15 or 20 of us is a lot, be prepared. There’s a larger batch of guys coming through.”
When the question was posed as to whether the latest crop of South Africans were as their predecessors in growing up playing rugby, cricket and tennis as well as golf, Stone mentioned the great debate back in his homeland as to the best way ahead for an aspiring golfer.
“It’s kind of a weird topic back in South Africa right now,” he said. Apparently, South African officialdom, with their Golf RSA project, have been doing their best to encourage a change of emphasis following a spell in which there were a rising number of kids being home-schooled and turning professional at the end of their schooling. According to Stone, those who had concentrated on their golf to the exclusion of all else had tended “to get stuck” in South Africa instead of embarking on a faster start in the wider golfing world.
Meanwhile, for his personal view on whether a multi-sports background was still a good idea, Stone said that it probably did not make sense for a promising South African lad to risk rugby injuries after the age of 16 or 17 anymore, even if the team side of the sport was a definite positive. To him the modern kid needed to target such as Rory (McIlroy), Dustin (Johnson), and Brooks (Koepka).
“Enough data exists now that we can see a disturbing trend where kids that specialise at an early age are completely out of the sport much earlier than those who play multiple sports and who learn the skills and camaraderie that come from playing on a team.” – PGA of America president Suzy Whaley
“If you look at the likes of Rory, Dustin and Brooks, they’re reaping the rewards of developing as athletes as opposed to just golfers. They are professional athletes, professional sportsmen and then golfers.”
Suzy Whaley, president of the PGA of America, has sent out a kindred message to the RSA’s about an aspiring golfer doing himself or herself no favours in sticking to golf and golf alone. “The evidence is clear: playing only one sport is not good for a child’s body and it actually stunts their athletic development,” Whaley said. “What we’ve seen is that specialisation, which is coming at earlier and earlier ages, now more so than ever, is actually bad for the child, not just physically but emotionally and psychologically.
“Enough data exists now that we can see a disturbing trend where kids that specialise at an early age are completely out of the sport much earlier than those who play multiple sports and who learn the skills and camaraderie that come from playing on a team. It’s one of the most important initiatives in our game right now and one that we wholeheartedly embrace.”
The business of what to do is indeed a “weird topic.” And in spite of the good intentions of the RSA and the PGA, there will be plenty of families who will continue to prefer a “quicker-the-better” approach for their child’s sporting future.
For instance, how many tennis parents, after watching the 15-year-old Coco Gauff getting to the second week of Wimbledon, will not be thinking that their daughter could do with getting a move on if she is not to fall hopelessly behind? What they will not be doing is looking at those tennis players in their later 20s and 30s who have done well.
Serena Williams is a case in point in that, though she started young, she and Venus were not allowed to use up their competitive energies on the junior tennis scene.
In golf, meantime, Koreans have an important lesson about not looking for too much too soon. Though Se-Ri Pak, the first of the Koreans, will tell you that everything she went through – eight hours of daily practice and a mental breakdown – was probably rendered worthwhile by the five majors she has under her belt, it has not stopped her from speaking publicly about the error of the Korean ways.
In 2011, when she was at Carnoustie, Pak focused on how the Koreans did not know how to relax. “So now I tell them, ‘If you are 100 percent focused on your golf, make sure that you are 100 percent focused on being relaxed when you are not on the course. That way, you will play better.’”
When this correspondent suggested that the girls’ parents would not exactly thank her for what she was saying, she gave a knowing nod.
“Part of it with the parents,” she expanded, “is difficult because some of them won’t understand. But the situation is getting better. Parents will always want what’s best for their own child.”
Some of the world’s golf tours, but not all, offer their own safeguards against pushy parents by imposing an age minimum. On the other hand, there are parents all over the golfing globe who would like to do the right thing in following the advice of Golf RSA or the PGA of America but who lack the necessary funds.
At the moment the financial help handed out to this category often goes no further than grassroots level – and that, of course, is no longer enough at a time when golf is approaching its second Olympics.
Young golfers during Junior Day at the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open. Photo: Chris Keane, Copyright USGA
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