There’s lots to envy about Canada.
The vast and geographically diverse country features great scenery, an inclusive multicultural identity, a stable government, universal health care and a pipeline.
Not the kind of pipeline that transports oil and natural gas, although Canada does have those, but one that produces increasingly more golfers, recreational and competitive.
For proof of the latter, consider the number of Canadians making their marks on professional tours worldwide.
Canada has fewer residents than California. The climates hardly are comparable. Yet the country boasts the highest per capita golf-participation rate in the world, according to the National Golf Foundation. Almost 6 million of its 36 million citizens play golf at least once a year.
Recently, Canadians have won on the PGA, Champions, LPGA, Web.com, Canadian, Symetra and Asian tours.
Some of those successes can be attributed, at least in part, to the aforementioned “pipeline,” centered around a concept called Future Links that was developed 20 years ago by Golf Canada, the nation’s governing body for the game. Although the retention rate is unknown, more than 1.5 million young Canadians have passed through the Future Links program. It has drawn attention, and admiration, from around the world, said Jeff Thompson, Golf Canada’s chief sport officer.
As a testament, when Future Links lost longtime title sponsor CN last year, Golf Canada approached the R&A. Golf’s worldwide governing body outside of the U.S., Canada and Mexico was impressed enough to provide financial and other resources to help support Future Links. (Acura Canada also stepped in as a sponsor.)
“The R&A saw the value in it as a great program to share with other International Federation of Golf partners looking for a foundational program,” Thompson said. “Without diminishing other programs, it is unique in that it encompasses the entire spectrum, from schools to facilities and an outreach program that sees a fully equipped vehicle traveling to where the kids are, whether that’s a school or a golf facility, a festival or wherever.”
Although around for two decades, Future Links sharpened its focus when it, in Thompson’s words, “started to pass everything through the filter of our Long-Term Player Development Program.”
Although several iterations were developed since the first effort in 2006, the current and most comprehensive version incorporating the Long-Term Player Development program, or LTPD, was implemented in 2015. Glenn Cundari, the PGA of Canada’s technical director, explained: “We must create a culture of doing the right thing at the right time. We have to think long-term, and that is a challenge for parents, tours, media, everyone … even the players themselves. Everyone worries about ‘right now’.”
Golf Canada’s LTPD is contained in an 80-page booklet (viewable online at golfcanada.ca/LTPD). It describes seven age-based “developmental stages of the competitive pathway” under the heading “Golf For Life”: Active Start, Fundamentals, Learn to Golf, Introduction to Competition, Learn to Compete, Train to Compete and Compete to Win.
LTPD’s purpose is to bring “a continued focus on working towards developing the potential of every golfer in Canada while simultaneously increasing participation in the sport.”
Under that mandate, Future Links starts at the Learn To Play level for youngsters, a color-coded, four-stage, fun-based introduction to the game. It then progresses through the Junior Skills Challenge, the PGA Junior League and other options, including regional competitive events across the country. An ancillary program, Community Golf Coach, trains volunteers to work with children at the local level, to introduce the basics of Future Links programming. All incorporate not only golf and physical aspects but life skills as well.
At the elite level, Golf Canada enhances these initiatives through its Team Canada and Young Pro Squad programs. The latter has supported the success of many promising players, who have won about 30 times worldwide. Notable players who have come through all levels of Future Links include five-time LPGA winner Brooke Henderson and PGA Tour winners Mackenzie Hughes and Nick Taylor.
“Working my way up from the Future Links program, Golf Canada’s Amateur Squad and eventually the Young Pros helped develop my game to the point I’m at now,” said Hughes, 26, a two-time Canadian Amateur champion who won the PGA Tour’s RSM Classic last fall. “Golf Canada has been instrumental in helping me reach my goals at every level.”
Recently, Golf Canada wrapped up its second annual Adopt a School Week. Since the program’s inception in 2009, adoptions have accounted for almost half of the more than 3,200 registered schools delivering the Golf in Schools curriculum. This year, 240 new schools have been adopted, introducing golf to an average of 120 students per school. Currently, the Golf in Schools program introduces the game to almost 400,000 students annually from coast to coast.
A new element of Future Links called “Get Linked” provides grants to golf facilities to assist in two ways. The Field Trip Grant offers $500 to facilities to bring schools to the course by helping cover the cost of bus transportation and the golf professional’s time. The Golf Pro Visitation Grant gives $150 to golf pros to go into schools to make a connection with schools in their community and assist in delivering the Future Links in-school programming.
“We’re still evolving,” Thompson said. “With the metrics and data we are gathering, we will continue to develop more and better ways to encourage entry and development. It’s an ongoing challenge.”
It’s a challenge facing golf worldwide.
Golf Canada and its partners, such as the PGA of Canada and the National Golf Course Owners Association Canada, are tackling that challenge proactively. Rather than envy their progress, others might do well to start building their own pipelines for the continued vitality of the game. Canada already has done most of the heavy lifting.
John Gordon, who has covered golf for more than 30 years for Canadian newspapers, magazines and a TV network, has authored eight books on the game. He lives in Midland, Ontario. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @gordongolf