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Pay it Forward

Players who benefited from junior programs are providing similar opportunities for golf’s next generation

By: Ernie Els

We can all remember how we first got into golf- probably through family, friends or perhaps a junior organizer at a local club. No matter how, it all boils down to the same thing: receiving the encouragement and more importantly, the opportunity to play.

I was lucky. We had great weather in South Africa, so the outdoors were a way of life. My dad, my brother and I were members of the local club, which meant I could play as much golf as I wanted to—which was a lot. And as my game improved, I was fortunate to have parents who were in a position to support me as I pursued my dreams.

I’ll never forget playing in the Optimist International Junior Golf Championship in San Diego when I was 14. I was excited because it was the biggest tournament I’d ever played in. It was also big for South African golf since we had been prevented from playing in international events.

I had the lead going into the final round, and my playing partner was Phil Mickelson. As we came to the last hole, a par 5, I knew that if I made par I would win. Despite my nervousness, I made that all-important par. Even now, 24 years on, I remember it well.

The other thing I remember is the hamburgers. I ate a lot of hamburgers that week!

Seriously, that was one of the most important weeks of my life. It helped me believe in myself. All because I was given the opportunity—that word again. Without that, who knows what I’d be doing now?

Tiger, myself and a lot of other guys on tour all can remember those who helped us when we were growing up. It is why we give back to the game at the junior and grass-roots level. It’s part of the reason we set up the Ernie Els & Fancourt Foundation in 1999. The foundation helps give kids a better start in life so they can make something of themselves through education and access to the game.It’s been a huge success. Former members Charl Schwartzel and James Kamte will compete on the European Tour this year, and we have on our books some of the highest-ranked junior girls and boys in South Africa.

Tiger’s junior foundation team plays my team in an annual match called the Friendship Cup. It’s an amazing experience for the kids. They learn lessons that will make them better players; they forge new friendships and take away special memories that will last a lifetime.

Former U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell also has a foundation in his native New Zealand, inspiring and motivating young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In England, Nick Faldo’s Junior Series has been a huge success, producing winners such as Nick Dougherty.

I don’t think there’s another sport that does more for its young participants. In the U.S., there are a number of large-scale initiatives like the First Tee and events like the Callaway Golf PGA Junior Series and the Junior Ryder Cup.

At the local level, individual clubs and dedicated volunteers around the world give kids a chance to sample the game, receive good coaching and compete. My home club in England, Wentworth, has a golf scholarship program. It enables youngsters to enjoy club membership that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford, so they get a start on fulfilling their potential as young adults, perhaps even live their dreams and become professional golfers. One ex-scholar is Ross Fisher, who won his first event last year at the KLM Open in August.

The future of the game is bright, but only if we continue to make golf accessible to the younger generation. If we all do our bit, the combined effect is significant. I believe that introducing and encouraging a youngster in golf gives them a step up on life’s ladder. If they go on to become great players, that’s a bonus. What’s more important is that golf helps kids make new friends, learn useful life skills, gives them confidence, and helps them lead more fulfilling lives.

That’s big. That’s the ultimate.  
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