I recently had the opportunity to tour the US Kids Golf facility - a vibrant and engaging environment - and interview Dan Van Horn -Founder, President and CEO of US Kids Golf, Arkansas Golf Hall of Famer, and probably the guy who knows more about junior golf than anyone else in the world.
When you were in high school, what was your vision for your future?
When I was in high school I was passionate about golf, basketball and football. My parents encouraged me to be outside and I enjoyed hunting, playing sport and generally pursued an outdoor lifestyle. But I had no real ambition and sense of purpose for my future at that time. I had a natural talent for golf and was offered scholarships for golf and football but I turned them both down and pursued mechanical engineering at the University of Arkansas. At age 40, I had sold a business and was trying to decide what to do next. It was a time to really re-evaluate what was most important for me to do in my life. I think this is important for all of us – take some time to really think if what we are doing really matters to the world we live in.
You have recently opened up the Longleaf Golf and Family Club in Pinehurst, NC with scaled yardages for every level and the mission of fully embracing and growing family golf. The new Bobby Jones Golf Course being renovated in Atlanta will also employ the Longleaf Tee System and have a short course that will be suited to kids. Do you hope this vision will take off across the country and do you have plans for opening similar facilities?
The US Kids Golf Foundation and the American Society of Golf Course Architects are in partnership and leading the way in training architects to scale a golf course with more forward tees. Over 40 courses in the country have adopted the Longleaf system and Longleaf Golf and Family Club in NC is a living laboratory that we hope will give inspiration to other courses.
You are growing US Kids Golf internationally and international tournaments can now be played in Australia, Mexico, England, Scotland, Italy, Costa Rica and Canada. Are you growing local tours abroad and if so are they under the 'US Kids' brand name?
We are growing the brand internationally as we first started in the USA. The first tournament that US Kids Golf put on in the USA was the World Championship. We started with big tournaments and local tours followed. Internationally we put on some big tournaments and local tours are growing. As with the US it is important to have good tournament directors in charge and there are cultural challenges that must be overcome too, for example, parents in Europe are not used to paying the equivalent of $30 for their kids to play tournaments.
For the parent of the 5 or 6 year old who has just started lessons at their local club. At what point should this parent give a USKG tournament a try?
In order to give a child the opportunity to maximize their enjoyment of the sport they first need to be fitted with the correct equipment, perhaps starting with the Yard Club with molded grip. A molded grip is important in that it gives the correct hand positioning that maximizes the chance of the child getting the proper swing motion from the beginning. It is important to begin playing with light weight clubs. As far as tournaments are concerned, if the child has some sense of the game they should come out and play. There is a 10 shot max on each hole and most kids enjoy the sense of competition with kids of their own age group.
What advice would you give to the brand new parent and child on the local tour? The parent, having little to no golf experience of his or her own?
Start with the Positive Coaching Alliance workshop. The role of the parent caddy is different to that of a parent, as the player is the boss and the parent must undertake a supportive role. The player needs to make the decisions at a very young age, which is often difficult for the parent.
When did you start playing golf and what was the best advice you received that has impacted how you approach the game?
My first exposure to the game was when my dad would take me out when I was about eight or nine years old and I would pull his golf bag. When I was 40 I decided to play golf professionally. My advice would be that if you want to play professional golf play college golf and give professional golf a try when you are still young. College is a great time for kids to transition but that doesn’t mean that they are ready to take on the world when they are out. My advice to parents – stay involved but don’t control. Another piece of advice is 'learn to fail early' and if a professional career does not pan out there are still many things that a golfer can do in the golfing industry.
One of the pieces of wisdom that I live by is found in Proverbs 22:6. Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it. I believe in training a child according to their gifts and strengths and they will stay with what they are inherently. One of the best thing I can recommend is to do a Personality Profile test. Everyone in the family should do one. Every kid approaches golf (and life) with a different personality. That is the key to developing the player. You've got to know what you've got in order to build where you're going effectively. You have to figure out what will incentivize, motivate and feed their joy.
Junior golf has evolved so dramatically over the past decade. Kids are becoming so good very young. How accurate do you think this statement is: If you are not nationally ranked by the time you are 10 years old, it is unlikely that you would have a chance at playing professionally in the future.
I wouldn’t agree with that sort of thinking at all. Jordan did not even qualify to play in our World Championship when he was 12 years old. I would not worry about national ranking until between 14 to 16 years old.
Puberty and huge growth spurts tend to wreak havoc on a junior golfer's body and brain. The junior's swing is often completely reworked around the time they are 13 or 14 years old. What advice would you give to a nationally competitive junior golfer who is aging out of the US Kids Golf tour who has D1 and professional aspirations? Once they have the correct equipment fitted, what should they be focusing on?
This age can be very difficult for kids who go through puberty late. Golf courses are scaled for the stronger players in the field and it can be demoralizing for kids who have been very successful in younger ages and have not had the same growth spurts as others in their age group and find they are being outdriven on every hole. Both parents and kids have to have patience and let the process play out. National ranking does not mean that much. If you are not reaching the greens this is a good time to really work on short game. Also, stay with shorter, lighter clubs to develop maximum power in the swing.
The Positive Coaching Alliance workshop is definitely recommended for parents involved in junior golf. What other advice would you give to parents of US Kids junior golfers regarding how best to prepare them for success when they age out and don't have dad or mom on the bag?
Kids need to be making their own decisions on the course from a young age, in this way they will be prepared to play tournaments where caddies are not allowed. On a practical note, for parents, I would recommend not traveling too much for golf tournaments if you can find the competition locally. Realize that the most important thing is to play. Play local tournaments like Hurricanes and local PGA junior tours. You don't need to be spending a lot of money just to get exposure. The most important thing is to play and compete. If the junior is winning locally then branch out. From a College scholarship perspective, remember that coaches almost always look in-State and for most players the scholarships are going to be split between players as D1 colleges can award 4.5 scholarships annually. Academics are in many ways more important and if you have options it is always a good idea to go where you can play.