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.
thing I remember is the hamburgers. I ate a lot of hamburgers that
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
Tiger’s junior foundation team plays
my team in an
annual match called the Friendship Cup. It’s an amazing experience
the kids. They learn lessons that will make them better players; they forge
new friendships and take away special memories that will last a
Former U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell also has a
his native New Zealand, inspiring and motivating young
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.
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
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
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.