There is no better way for a golfing dad to spend his Father’s Day than playing nine with his kids. I visited several courses early this season, and spoke with the pro staff at each as I asked their guidance in what makes for a “kid-friendly course” and what a course should do to support youth golf.
Fortunately for those of us in Michigan, Northern Michigan is not only our own Napa Valley, it is our own nearly private golf Nirvana. From Roscommon north to the Mackinac Bridge, there are over two hundred courses from which to choose. I surveyed many of them, and chose a handful as being exemplars of “kid-friendly courses.”
My son Aaron, now a 22 year big hitter, and I played them during the first days of May. Despite Little Traverse Bay’s ice laden shores and noteworthy snow still on the hill at Nubs Nob, the courses were in good shape.
Golf can be good exercise-try a brisk up and downhill 2 mile walk whilst wearing a twenty pound backpack if you doubt. The game teaches integrity-you are your own referee. Should you cheat, you’ll know. It teaches arithmetic. Try telling your 8 year old playing partner you had a four, and they’ll quickly remind you that you swung the club 7 times. It teaches emotional resiliency. Hit two gigantic slices into the pond, and you still need to tee it up again, calm yourself, and give it another whack. Pro-tip: If the kid’s getting tired after 5 holes and topping everything from the fairway, let ‘em tee it up in the fairway. This is for fun. It’s not the US Open.
You’re outside. The air is clean. The grass and trees are green. You’ll see birds and snakes and turtles and frogs, and maybe a woodchuck. No screens. Leave the iPad at home. Resist the urge to shoot video of every shot hit by your kid. Just get out and swing.
What Makes for a Good Kid Course?
I spoke at length with Alex Hughes, apprentice PGA of America pro at the famed Treetops Resort and Spa in Gaylord, MI. Treetops is home to five outstanding courses and Mr. Hughes explained, in five straightforward steps, what to look for in a kid-friendly course, and why the Treetops Tradition course works so well for parents and kids to play together.
1) No blind shots. The Tradition features very few blind shots and that’s a great feature in a course for kids. We want kids to be able to take aim on something, and have a whack at it. Targets are good for kids, for everyone really, because they help kids focus. Plus, isn’t a great feeling when your shot goes where you want it? Makes you feel pretty good, right? We want that feeling as often as possible in our young golfers. We want the kids to be as successful as possible out there.
2) No forced carries. That’s true for a lot of golfers – from those with indexes in the high teens on up – but especially true for the kids. Forced carries are bad for several reasons. First, they put a lot of pressure on a kid who’s just learning to make good contact. Second, when you don’t make it, that’s such a downer. Third, you’ve lost a ball. Kids hate losing balls.
Last, forced carries are a set-up for failure. The kid is 8, on her best shot she can carry the ball maybe 60 yards (in the air), but even from the forward tees, she needs to carry it 90 yards to clear the pond. What’s the point in that? That’s no fun, and it’s a bad lesson-that you can hit the ball well and still be penalized for it. If you are on a course with your kid and there’s a carry that you know your kid can’t make, have them hit from the other side. It keeps play moving. Let’s have our kids be successful out there.
3) No water. We all love water hazards, right? They’re pretty, and maybe your kid’ll get excited to see the turtles on a log, but water isn’t too forgiving to a golfer on the learning curve. Nothing is worse than the splash. There’s no water to speak of on the Tradition, and for kids, that’s a big plus.
4) Routing. Most likely, you’ll play nine with your kids, so you want a course that loops back after nine to the clubhouse. The Tradition’s front nine is set up especially that way. Some of our courses here at Treetops are done in the British style; nine holes out from the clubhouse, do a U-turn, and then nine holes back in, but with kids, that means a long slog back in from 2 miles away, just when the kid is ready for a Coke, and maybe a little putting contest on the practice green.
5) Elevation changes kept to a minimum. Elevation changes don’t get enough credit, or maybe blame, as a golf challenge. I’m way up here on the tee, looking at a green maybe fifteen or twenty yards below my feet, do I take away one club? Two? To compound the issue, most kids lack consistent club distances. You never know if their five iron is going 60 yards this time, or 90. And if it’s an elevated green, for kids, that’s even worse, since most kids don’t hit the ball way up in the air anyway. Big elevation changes make the game really rough for kids. The Tradition has very few holes with major elevation changes.
From the forward tees on the Tradition, a parent can club down, and the kid can take a full swing, and it makes for a great time on the course for everyone.
What Makes for a Good Kid Program? –
From PGA Hall of Famer Larry Mancour
I had the good luck to chat with Larry Mancour about the current state of kids’ golf. Larry played on the PGA Tour from 1960-1976. He played with success on the PGA Senior Tour. He is a noted course designer; the Chestnut Valley Course reviewed in this article is from his desk. Yet, his golf legacy will be his dedication to junior golf programs.
Larry, where is junior golf today?
Things have changed a lot. What with both parents working, grandparents have become very important. They’re the ones that belong to the private clubs, and if not, they’re the ones who often transport the kids. The crash of 2008 really hurt the golf business. (Course closures have dramatically outpaced openings since 2008-Ed.) When I was working with the Flint (Michigan) Junior Golf Association, we had the largest program in the country with 2,200 kids. In a factory town with 100,000 people! But that was in the glory days of GM. Everything is different today.
You’ve been with the PGA since your playing days. What is the PGA of America doing to grow the game with kids?
They’ve been doing great stuff. They’re not fools. They’ve worked hard to come up with programs that make golf accessible. Check out the PGA of America website (Editor’s note- the PGA of America is the business and teaching arm of professional golf, for both men and women pros. The PGA and LPGA Tour are the men and women you watch playing golf on TV) and you’ll see. Their junior programs – The First Tee, PGA Junior League- they’re all about getting clubs into kids’ hands.
When a parent looks for a junior program, what are the keys?
Well, having PGA of America certification, for a start. You come through the program, you’ve got playing skills, you learn teaching skills, you learn people and kid skills. Some pros, just like in school, are better with certain age kids, so you would like, if possible, to watch them work with a group of kids. But if they’re a PGA pro, they’ve come through a pretty tough process right there.
Look, we’ve got a great product, a fun product- we need to get the kids up off the couch, get their Gameboys and iPads and whatnot out of their hands- and get golf clubs into their hands.
I also spoke at length with pros at the courses we visited about their junior golf programs.
Hidden River Golf and Casting Club is part of the Boyne.com group of courses. Boyne maintains eleven courses throughout northwestern Michigan. Several of Boyne’s courses are perennial Golf Magazine Top 100 Courses. Hidden River is a newer acquisition, and it follows one of Northern Michigan’s most scenic trout streams. Manager Dave McWhorter gave me the run-down on their junior golf program.
“Many of our clients and members are from the original Burt Lake vacation cottage community. We have a lot of grandchildren of the Club’s members who take part in our junior golf program. We have a trained and licensed staff to supervise and coach, so a lot of the time, the kids are dropped off, and they’re with us for a good part of the day.”
“We have private training areas, away from the course, and that’s where we do most of our camp. A lot of time on the range, hitting balls, learning technique through ‘doing.’ We have fun contests. We’ll take aim on targets, or do closest to the pin, or some goofy stuff, to keep the kids relaxed. Most of the time, they’re not even aware that we’re coaching, but we are.”
“We stay primarily on the range and putting green. It’s better, from a supervisory side, and a coaching side, too. We do take them out on the course, but most of the time, we’re hitting balls and chipping and putting. Basic skills and fun, building a good foundation.”
“It’s very non-mechanical play. It’s easy to get caught up in all the technical side of the game, but especially with the kids, we stay away from teaching mechanics. Swing, make contact, enjoy the result. We’re very low stress. It’s about instilling good habits, and we’re very good, I think, about teaching good course behavior and etiquette. I see the kids when they get a bit older, and they’re out on the course as teens. Our non-member teens can play twilight golf for free so we do get a chance to see them as older players. We see the good behavior, and that’s a nod to what they learned as kids with us, I like to think.”
Alex Hughes and the staff at Treetops are big boosters of the PGA of America program called PGA Junior League. As Alex explained it to me, “It’s like Little League. The kids, 13 and under, are placed on a team. They get uniform shirts, they are responsible to each other, it’s about teamwork. Each nine hole match is played by a two kid team in a scramble. Kids sub in and everybody plays. Each match is split up into three “flags.” Your team wins a flag and your team earns a point. Plus, you get a flag sticker for you bag tag.”
“We’ve learned this program works because since we’ve put it in place, we’ve seen a big surge in our teenage junior golf numbers. If we can get kids involved in the game, we’ll grow the game. Get those kids outside, away from the video golf, and playing real golf.”
“We had a cool thing happen. You watched the Masters, and you probably saw some of the National Drive, Chip, and Putt competition they played the week before. One of our Gaylord junior golfers made the final. Nine year old boy.”
“There’s one other thing we’ve just started doing that everyone seems to like; not just the kids. It’s foot golf. It’s a riot. You play with a size five soccer ball, the holes are shorter, the cups are 21 inches across, you kick it up there, and knock it in the hole. It’s really fun, and I think it’s going to be good for the game of regular golf. [Click here for a short video on the rules and method of play.]
Our visit to Northern Michigan started at Treetops. This marked the first time Aaron and I had swung a club for the season. After our three hour drive, we hit a few range balls, and decided to play the first round at the famed Threetops course. Treetops Resort has played host to the PGA Skins Par Three Shoot-out here, as well the national par three championships. Normally, a par three course is a great warm-up. Few holes longer than 200 yards, an emphasis on mid-irons, chipping, and putting. Indeed, for a parent with young kids, a local par three is the perfect kid-friendly locale.
Threetops is decidedly not kid-friendly. It is, however, breathtaking. Narrow fairways, forced carries, and massive elevation changes make it tough. The 3rd hole falls 35 yards over its 200 yard length. That’s 16 degrees-plenty steep for a blue square ski run (see the slideshow). Threetops is a great course; challenging and an excellent example of natural Northern Michigan terrain- but even from the forward tees-not a good choice for kids.
Every point that Mr. Hughes laid out for me was illustrated by our round at The Tradition. Designed in links-style, The Tradition plays well and fairly from the forward tees. The wide-open course helps the parent sight his kid’s shot and the rolling terrain makes it easier to help your kid with club selection. There is no water in play. Most importantly for a kid-course, the forward tees are well-placed to give a kid a fair shake at getting to the greens in bogey strokes. Check out the flagsticks. They’re made from wood, and the checkered flag pattern gives your kid a great target. The Tradition is a fine place to take your young players.
Hidden River Golf & Casting Club.
Located north of Petoskey, MI in the town of Brutus, Hidden River is an exceptionally beautiful course. The front nine is especially kid-friendly. The first two holes are perfect warm-up holes, and the remaining seven bring you back to the clubhouse along the Hidden River. The back nine is even more beautiful, but you’ll deal with a significant amount of water. That’s the downside to the beauty of the course. From a kid-golf perspective, the back nine plays a bit shorter, but the challenges for the high-handicapper (i.e. your kid) seemed to be higher as an offset. You’ll see plenty of wildlife, always a plus with kids on the course, and the range is also well-designed.
Hard by Nubs Nob and Boyne Highlands ski areas, just outside of Harbor Springs, Chestnut Valley is less-known to the outside golf world, and that deserves to change. It is set in a old hardwood forest, and features log homes across the grounds. Each hole offers great risk-reward for the parent and yet has scoring opportunities for the young golfer. Ex-PGA Tour pro Larry Mancour designed the course. Mancour has always been a huge booster of youth golf and his sentiments are clear in the design of his course. In our opinion, the most kid-friendly of the courses we played. Play here once with your kids and see if you don’t agree.
If it turns out that your kid has love for the game, and a taste for some competitive play, make certain to visit the American Junior Golf Association’s website. The AJGA is the organization for kids who hope to earn college scholarships via competitive golf. Click here for AJGA.org.
Whatever you do, get out there and swing!
To read more #DadsRT golf posts, click on the links below.
FYI- This is not a sponsored post. I chose these courses. Although course managers were kind enough to extend courtesy discounts, no quid pro quo was involved.