National golf-development programs have been foundational for decades in cultivating and launching talented players in almost every country across the world, from Canada to Sweden to South Africa to South Korea to Australia. At long last, the United States is on board the national developmental train.
The USGA on Friday launched the U.S. National Development Program, partnering with several leading golf organizations to create the country’s first “unified pathway to nurture the potential of America’s top players” starting in competitive junior golf and progressing to the professional ranks.
USGA CEO Mike Whan says Friday’s launch of a national program is a step that’s long overdue.
“Today, nearly every other competitive golf country in the world offers a national development program to foster and develop its elite junior talent. The United States is at a huge competitive disadvantage in this regard, as we simply ask our athletes, parents and coaches to forge their own path, without any unified national guidance or financial support,” Whan said. “Golf is the only major sport in the U.S. without a national development program. Today, that ends. Today, we start building a junior development program that will ensure a stronger American pipeline of diverse, high-potential talent.”
The U.S. National Development Program will identify, train, develop, fund and support the nation’s most promising players – regardless of gender, cultural, geographical or financial background – to ensure that American golf remains the global leader in the game. It will create a sustainable grant program to financially assist identified male and female players with entry fees, travel, coaching costs, golf course access, equipment and more.
“The journey from junior golf to elite competition has become complicated and cost-prohibitive for many families,” said Heather Daly-Donofrio, USGA managing director of player relations and development. “It is our duty to unify and simplify the process by removing any barriers that prevent the most promising juniors from reaching their full potential. The success of this program will not only support and elevate the talent of today’s top players, but also diversify and strengthen the next generation of great American golfers.”
Where the USNDP can be a game-changer is outside the traditional breeding grounds for young golfers whose families have the means. It is committed to reaching players from underrepresented communities to ensure they have the resources to progress within the sport’s strongest competitive and developmental opportunities.
“Junior golf is an expensive proposition, and we have some very, very robust goals in the area of the grant program,” Daly-Donofrio said. “We’re going to be very intentional about how we approach our grant program and identifying those young boys and girls, particularly from groups that are underrepresented in the game of golf currently.”
“That’s the goal of the teams is that even if an athlete in their program needs anything, or they’re struggling with something, that the first call is back to the national team.” – Heather Daly-Donofrio
Starting in 2023, the program will fund 50 juniors. The program will grow each year, and by 2027 it aims to fund 1,000 juniors across the country and impact thousands more.
The elite juniors, amateurs and young professionals in the national program will be invited to join one of three national teams with dedicated staff and resources and compete internationally under the U.S. flag. The junior national team should launch in 2024, the amateur team in ’25 and young professionals team in ’26. Regional championships are planned to start in 2025, and regional camps by 2026.
“They’ll have access to coaching and nutritional advice and strength and conditioning. They’ll have training camps where they come together as a team, boys and girls together,” Daly-Donofrio said. “That’s the goal of the teams is that even if an athlete in their program needs anything, or they’re struggling with something, that the first call is back to the national team. They provide that level of coordinated support throughout the player’s journey, so that the player is never, ever alone.”
The USGA is not going at this alone, either, and has formed strategic alliances with several leading golf organizations – the AJGA, PGA of America and LPGA Professionals, Golf Coaches Association of America, Women’s Golf Coaches Association and allied state and regional golf associations – to work within the current golf ecosystem to provide supplemental support and fill in gaps within the industry. PGA and LPGA professionals have committed to supporting the program through coaching and player development.
It will take the whole village, because identifying talent will be a critical and complicated component of the national program. It has hired a director of data strategy to analyze the tracking measures of young players. It will work with its allied state and regional golf associations to identify up-and-coming junior players who have potential, drive, determination and work ethic to move through the pipeline. It will evaluate nominations from coaches and instructors for players who should be on the radar. And it will have a national coach and staff to make eyes-on talent identification at junior events and championships.
“We’re taking a multifaceted approach here to talent identification,” Daly-Donofrio said.
The program will utilize existing AJGA events as part of a pathway for players to progress from state and regional competitions to USGA championships, including the introduction of more automatic exemptions into AJGA events at appropriate levels. The program also will bring player development and parent education to the AJGA.
“There’s so many great things about golf in the United States, and there are so many opportunities and different avenues for juniors and amateurs across the game and so many great organizations that do wonderful work from the grassroots level, all the way through the collegiate game,” said Daly-Donofrio, a two-time winner on the LPGA in the early 2000s. “But there’s really no coordinated, integrated pathway for young boys and girls to progress through the game to the highest levels of the game.”
Being late to the table in creating a national program offers some benefits.
“I think one of the advantages in going last is that you get to learn from all of the other national teams,” Daly-Donofrio said. “Not only learning what they’ve done well, but also gaining insight from things that may not have worked for the national team. I’ll say we have talked with probably close to 15 national teams … we’re in a good position where we can pick and choose the elements of other people’s programs that we think might fit here, understanding that it’s a different culture in the United States and this is brand new.”
One of those evolving elements was maintaining young professionals in the development pipeline instead of leaving them to fend for themselves in making the next step.
“Golf is the only major sport in the U.S. without a national development program. Today, that ends. Today, we start building a junior development program that will ensure a stronger American pipeline of diverse, high-potential talent.” – Mike Whan
“There were many national programs that did not include young professionals in their national teams originally,” Daly-Donofrio said, “and what they were finding is that they were supporting these athletes all the way through their amateur and collegiate careers and kind of leaving them on their own once they got to the professional ranks, and they weren’t performing as well as the national programs expected that they would.
“So providing that support and that guidance to young professionals as they’re starting their journeys on LPGA or PGA Tour, Korn Ferry or Epson, there’s a need there and that’s where we can fill that gap for some of those young players just transitioning into the professional ranks.”
The U.S. National Development Program will focus on six key pillars:
- Talent identification: Create a process and pipeline via evaluations, camps and grassroots partnerships to identify the country’s most promising juniors by developing a data-driven procedure that goes beyond scoring averages to recognize, track and measure talent.
- Access to competition: Partner with allied golf associations, PGA of America sections and the AJGA to develop a unified pathway for players to progress from state-level competition to appropriate-level AJGA events and into USGA championships.
- National teams: Create and fund elite junior, amateur and young professional national teams in which members will receive access to year-round support, participate at biannual camps and compete internationally.
- Athlete resources: National team members will receive world-class instruction and analysis, sports psychology, nutritional coaching and resources necessary to develop the physical, mental and life skills to reach their full potential.
- Player development and relations: Establish a philosophy, curriculum and culture for the national teams that includes training camps and endorsement of coaches and specialists to apply an elevated and standardized approach to player development.
- Financial support: Build a sustainable grant program to assist identified talent from a financial perspective, including entry fees, travel, coaching fees, golf course access and equipment.
“This is a marathon for us,” Daly-Donofrio said of a plan that has been in the works at the USGA for years but turned into a priority by Whan, who became CEO in mid-2021 after 11 years as LPGA commissioner. “This is going to take us time to develop and see results. We’ll make some mistakes along the way, but we’ll learn from them. From my experiences playing the LPGA, I know that this will be a benefit to all of the players who are in the national program.”
Top Photo: Andrew Redington, Getty Images
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