Can Niall Horan save junior golf?
Attractive young women asking me for advice at golf tournaments hasn't been a common occurrence during my golf writing career. So I was a wee bit taken aback a few years ago when it happened on the Pro-am day of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth.
It was an eye opener on the power of celebrity to draw young people into the game.
The two young women didn’t want to pick my brain on the difference between a mashie and niblick. They wanted to know where they could find Niall Horan. The former One Direction singer was playing in the Pro-am. These two women didn’t care that most of Europe’s top stars were in the BMW field. They probably had no idea who Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Tommy Fleetwood, or Henrik Stenson was. They only had eyes for Horan.
I gave them a Pro-am draw. Figured out where Horan was on the course, and pointed them towards the 17th green. I told them to stand as close as possible to the exit from the green, and to fall in beside Horan as he walked to the 18th tee.
I don’t know if those two young women found Horan that day. I hope they did. I also don’t know if they decided to try golf because of Horan. I hope so. What matters is they were introduced to the game because of Horan’s fame. I hope McIlroy’s good friend can entice more youngsters to take up the game after the R&A’s announcement that Horan’s Modest! Golf company will help the governing body try to inspire more young people to play golf.
“I am so proud to work alongside the R&A in developing programmes to encourage and inspire more young people to play the game of golf,” Horan said.
R&A Chief Development Officer Phil Anderton said:
“Modest! Golf has a wealth of expertise and insight from the entertainment and sports industries that will be combined with our experience of developing golf around the world to establish exciting new initiatives aimed at reaching new audiences, and inspiring more young people into playing golf with their family and friends.”
The trick for the R&A and Modest! Golf is to make sure the game is as accessible to as many youngsters as possible. We need facilities that not only welcome young players, but make the game as affordable as possible to encourage them to try the game.
The latest KPMG figures show that despite much-lauded efforts to grow the game, youngsters are not taking up golf. Just the opposite.
The figures for registered golfers, those belonging to a golf club, are worrying. Just seven percent of all registers golfers in Europe in 2018 were classified as juniors. The number of juniors in Europe dropped from 349,887 in 2015 to a 2018 figure of 307,310. The number of juniors in England fell by over 20,000 in those years, from 40,596 to 19,535. Scotland went from 18,749 to 15,514 in the same period. Ireland saw a decline of 5,463 juniors, from 25,432 to 19,969. Wales went from 3,689 to 2,075.
Countries like Sweden, Spain and France have managed to keep numbers level but, by and large, juniors are leaving the game in Europe. Not the trajectory anyone who loves this game wants to see. We need as many kids as possible playing the game if it's to have a future. You don’t need to be a Mensa member to figure that out.
Let’s face it, golf is a tough sell to youngsters when they can get instant gratification from a mobile phone. If it takes Niall Horan to come up with a way to arrest the slide in junior participation then brilliant. What matters is we get kids playing this great game.
#JustSaying: “Dad, what do people do on a Sunday who don’t play golf?” Bobby Jones, aged 8
Photograph courtesy of the R&A