Around the World, Golf Prodigies Get National Support, but Not in the U.S.


Mone Inami, a professional golfer from Japan, won a silver medal for her country in last year’s Summer Olympics. Inami beat Lydia Ko, who has won 17 times on tour, including the Evian Championship in 2015.

Both were golf prodigies, with Ko turning pro at age 17 in 2014. They were also products of national golf academies. (New Zealand in Ko’s case.)

“I became a member of the Japanese national team” at age 15, Inami said through an interpreter. “I was then able to compete in golf matches overseas, which I hadn’t done before.”

“One of my goals in my amateur days was to become a member of the national team,” she said. “After I was selected as a member of Team Japan and started to compete as a member, I developed a sense of being part of a team.”

Inami is part of something many countries have developed that is supercharging their women’s golf programs and getting more players onto the professional circuit, and into events like the Amundi Evian Championship, which starts on Thursday in France.

South Korea took the lead on this a decade ago, and many other countries have followed suit, including England, Scotland, Canada, most of Europe, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

One notable exception to this list is the United States, which lacks any national program for women’s — or men’s — golf. It’s something Mike Whan, the new chief executive of the United States Golf Association, hopes to change.

“As commissioner of the L.P.G.A., I was floored that every player came out of a team program except in the U.S.,” Whan said in an interview before the Curtis Cup, which pits the best United States women amateurs against their British and Irish counterparts.

“When Lydia Ko was 11 in New Zealand, she joined Team New Zealand,” he said. “They taught her stretching, nutrition, how to work with caddies. I love the global part of this game, but as the head of the U.S.G.A., if we don’t create a better pipeline for American golf, we’re not going to be able to compete.”

He pointed to the world rankings. South Korea has 33 players in the top 100, and 148 golfers in the top 500. The United States, with over six times the population, ranks third for top-rated female players. (Japan is in second place.)

Whan said he would like to change this.

“Imagine if I take the best 500 young golfers and set up a $40-million grant program to carry them through a national program,” he said. “When I think about advancing the game, this is part of it.”

Whan announced ahead of the United States Open in June that the U.S.G.A. had hired Heather Daly-Donofrio, a former professional golfer who ran tour operations and communications for the L.P.G.A., to run the USA Development Program, which will aim to create a quasi-national team for boys and girls from 12 to 17.

While there is no firm plan in place, the mere mention of national support is music to the ears of junior players, coaches and parents.

“The No. 1 complaint I get from parents and players is why isn’t there a U.S. team?” said Spencer Graham III, founder and head coach at the Junior Golf Performance Academy in Naples, Fla. “Every other country has a federation supporting their best 12 or 20 players. But America can’t put one together? I don’t really understand it.”

Graham coaches many highly ranked junior golfers from the United States, but also coaches the top female golfers from Canada and Morocco, who are supported by their national federations.

“Some of these parents pay $100,000 to $150,000 a year to travel,” he said of his American students. “And then you have the Korean or Canadian teams putting up that money for their players. I coach Sofia Essakali, who’s 13. She gets financial support from Morocco so her parents don’t have to play thousands of dollars for her to travel around.”

The support can come in several forms. Rebecca Hembrough, performance manager for the female program at England Golf, said that expenses like private coaching and competition travel were covered for team members.

But the benefits extend beyond money. For an individual sport like golf, having a team matters.

“When I played for Japan in the Olympic Games, it was like playing for Team Japan,” Inami said. “I wasn’t fazed by any of that. I was able to enjoy the matches. I was prepared.”

Ryan Potter, associate head coach of Wake Forest University’s women’s golf team, said national teams allow training and preparation to start earlier, long before golfers get to college.

“In the U.S., it’s a crapshoot,” he said. “You’re being taught by who may be close to you. You’re also the product of how much money you have to spend or are willing to spend. Can you afford it?”

Peer support is key. Katie Cranston, a member of Team Canada, won the World Junior Golf Championship this year.

The Canadian Team was there, all dressed the same,” Graham said. “You could hear the Canadian players cheering for their team. You have the whole national squad cheering versus one parent clapping. It’s almost a disadvantage.”

There’s also the frequency and variety of competition.

In professional tournaments, golfers play their own ball, and they alone are responsible for shooting the lowest score they can. In team events like the Curtis Cup or the Solheim Cup, its professional equivalent, players spend several training days playing different formats of golf, like alternately hitting each others’ shot into the hole.

Those types of games are something national academies stress, said Kevin Craggs, who was the national coach of the Scottish Ladies Golfing Association and is now the director of golf at IMG Academy, a private sports school in Bradenton, Fla.

“At the Scottish national level we played a lot of match play,” he said, a format that is based on holes won, not the number of strokes on a scorecard. “It trains you to be aggressive. If I took a 4 and you took a 10 on a hole, you’re only 1 down. The score doesn’t matter.”

Working with young, elite golfers in the United States now, he tries to keep it fun to maintain the passion young golfers have for the game. “In the U.S., many players don’t get exposed to the fun parts of the game,” Craggs said. “We have to make sport fun and learning fun, and then specialize later.”

Inami said she had great memories of being on Team Japan as a teenager.

“We used to have fun but still compete with each other,” she said. “It’s helped me continue to compete at professional level, having had that fun.”

There are downsides, namely the excessive pressure. Certain national federations are also trying to push hard to get the players they backed into the professional ranks, even at the expense of playing college golf, Graham of the Junior Golf Performance Academy said.

Martin Blake, media manager of Golf Australia, said the federation offered team members two options.

“We encourage young female players to go through the college system, which Gabi Ruffels (University of Southern California) and Katherine Kirk (Pepperdine University) did,” he said. “Our elite amateurs are a mix of college and stay-at-home. Those who stay at home are funded to travel to international events like the U.S. Amateur.”

Success, though, is a great way to inspire players to reach for major championships like the Evian. Hembrough of England Golf pointed out that recent professionals from its program include the L.P.G.A. stars Charley Hull, Georgia Hall and Bronte Law.

“It’s building a legacy of success,” she said.



Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/19/sports/golf/national-golf-programs.html