Around the world, golf prodigies get national support, but not in the US

Mone Inami, a professional golfer from Japan, won a silver medal for his country at the Summer Olympics last year. Inam was beaten 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 the National Golf Academies. (In the case of New Zealand Co.)

“I became a member of the Japanese national team at the age of 15,” Inami said through a translator. “Then I was able to play golf overseas, which I hadn’t done before.”

“One of my goals in my amateur days was to become a member of the national team,” he said. After I was selected as a member of the Japanese team and started competing as a member, I felt a part of the team.

Inami is part of what many countries have developed to strengthen their women’s golf programs and bring more players to the professional circuit and events such as the Amundi Evian Championship, which begins Thursday in France.

South Korea took the lead 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 a national women’s — or men’s — golf program. That’s something Mike Wan, the new executive director of the United States Golf Association, hopes to change.

“As commissioner of the LPGA, I said every player is out of the team program except for the U.S.,” Wan said in an interview ahead of the Curtis Cup, which pits the top U.S. women’s amateurs against their British and Irish counterparts.

“When Lydia Ko was 11 years old in New Zealand, she joined the New Zealand team,” he said. “They taught him stretching, nutrition, how to work with caddies. I love the global part of this game, but as the head of the USGA, if we don’t create a better pipeline for American golf, we won’t be able to compete. “

He pointed to the world ranking. South Korea has 33 golfers in the top 100 and 148 golfers in the top 500. The United States, with six times the population, is the third highest ranked female player. (Japan is in second place.)

Who said he wants to change that.

“Imagine I took 500 of the best young golfers and put together a $40 million grant program to put them in a national program,” he said. “When I think about advancing the game, that’s part of it.”

Vaughan announced in June before the US Open that the USGA had hired Heather Daly-Donofrio, a former professional golfer who ran tour operations and communications for the LPGA, to lead a US development program aimed at creating a quasi-national. Team for boys and girls from 12 to 17 years old.

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 USA team?” said Spencer Graham III, founder and head coach of the Junior Performance Academy of Golf in Naples, Florida. “Every other country has a federation that supports their top 12 or 20 players. But America can’t put one together? I really don’t understand. “

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

“Some parents are paying $100,000 to $150,000 a year to travel,” he said of his American students. “And then you have teams in Korea or Canada that collect that money from their players. I coach Sofia Essakali, who is 13 years old. She receives financial aid from Morocco so her parents don’t have to fork over thousands of dollars to travel.”

Support can take several forms. Rebecca Hambrough, England Golf’s women’s program performance manager, said costs such as personal coaches and competition travel were covered for team members.

But the benefits go beyond money. For an individual sport like golf, having a team is important.

“When I played for Japan at the Olympics, it was about playing for Japan,” Inami said. “I wasn’t worried about it. I could enjoy the matches. I was ready. “

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

“In the US, it’s bullshit,” he said. “You are taught by someone who may be close to you. You are also a product of how much money you have spent or are willing to spend. Can you afford it?”

Peer support is key. Team Canada’s Katie Cranston won the World Junior Golf Championship this year.

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

So is the frequency and variety of competition.

In professional tournaments, golfers play their own ball and are solely responsible for putting as much as they can. In team events such as the Curtis Cup or the Solheim Cup, its professional equivalent, players spend several days practicing golf in different formats, such as taking turns hitting each other on the hole.

Those types of games are what the national academies emphasize, said Kevin Craggs, who was the national coach for the Scottish Ladies Golf Association and is now the director of golf at IMG Academy, a private sports school in Bradenton, Florida.

“We played a lot of matches at Scottish national level,” he said, a format based on holes won rather than the number of strokes on the scorecard. “He trains you to be aggressive. If I get a 4 and you get a 10 on the hole, you’re only 1 down. The score doesn’t matter.”

Now working with young, elite golfers in the United States, he strives to keep the passion young golfers have for the game alive. “A lot of players in the U.S. aren’t exposed to the fun parts of the game,” Craggs said. “We need to make sports fun and learning fun, and then specialize.”

Inami said he had great memories of being on the Japanese team as a teenager.

“We had fun, but we still competed against each other,” he said. “It helped me continue to compete at a professional level while having this much fun.”

There are disadvantages, namely excessive pressure. Some national associations also go to great lengths to bring players they support into the professional ranks, even at the expense of playing college golf, said Graham of the Junior Golf Performance Academy.

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

“We encourage young female players to go through the college system, which is what Gabby Ruffels (USC) and Kathryn Kirk (Pepperdine University) have done,” she said. “Our elite fans are a mix of college and stay-at-home. Those who stay at home are sponsored at international events such as the US Amateur.

However, success is a great way to inspire players to reach major championships like Evian. Golf England’s Hambrog noted that recent professionals in its program include LPGA stars Charlie Hull, Georgia Hall and Bronte Lowe.

“It builds a legacy of success,” he said.

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