Raising Your Tigers

More Canadian youths are trading in their golfing video game for playing the real thing. Besides getting some exercise, golf is teaching these kids life skills that will last them the rest of their days.

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When Rob Kerr was eight, his grandfather, pro golfer Bill Kerr, put a club in his tiny hands. At age 11, he was playing every day and competing provincially. By 14, he was missing school to compete in Florida and writing his exams in teachers’ offices. While his buddies at Montreal’s Lower Canada College slept off the effects of late-night parties on weekends, Kerr was on the course with his grandfather, often from sunrise to sunset. “He’d watch me hit balls for hours and hours,” Kerr remembers, “even in the rain.”

The discipline and perseverance paid off. Kerr competed against none other than Tiger Woods on several occasions and played on a four-man team representing Canada in 1996 and again in 1998, when he was one of Canada’s best amateur players.

“My grandfather took such an interest in my play and developing my talent,” says Kerr. His grandfather would jot down notes for him, which Kerr kept tucked in his golf bag for inspiration. “Each little note had a lesson-a lesson that had as much to say about life as about golf.” One, Kerr recalls, said, “You might wake up in the morning and be running late. Don’t rush. Take the time to warm up, and be methodical.”

Kerr, 34, now works as a financial advisor in Chicago and credits the game for both his personal and professional success. “Golf had a direct influence in university and work,” he says. “If I hadn’t had that positive influence, I would have slacked off more and socialized more.”

Kids will get a lot more out of golf than they put in, he explains. “Golf is a game you can play for life. It teaches you a lot of important lessons about honesty and fair play, the value of hard work and the sacrifice to reach your goals. Practically speaking, it’s a lifetime sport, in that you can enjoy it at any age and it opens up a lot of doors.

“What’s great is that golf is so much more accessible now,” Kerr adds. “It’s no longer an elitist game. It’s available to everyone.”
Were he alive today, Bill Kerr would probably be thrilled to see the new wave of kids swinging clubs across the country. We’ve gone from a nation of nongolfers to one of near-addicts: Over the last ten years, golf has replaced ice hockey as the most popular recreational sport in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. Families from coast to coast are realizing that not only is golf fun for kids but it also offers them valuable lessons in off-course life.

Thanks in part to the success of such programs as the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s (RCGA) CN Future Links, which works with children age six to 18, a new generation of Canadian golfers is preparing to take its place on the international stage alongside Mike Weir, Lorie Kane and Stephen Ames. “At least 20 girls and boys we’re working with across the country have a shot at becoming world-class professional golfers,” says Henry Brunton, 44, a Canadian Professional Golfers’ Association (CPGA) master professional and coach of the RCGA National Men’s Team since 1999. “Canada has never been so rich in golf talent.”

As part of the RCGA’s strategy to make golf more accessible to youngsters, dozens of mobile clinics are held across the country each summer. Vans stocked with golf equipment and staffed by CPGA professionals stop at parks, recreation centres and golf facilities. Sponsored by CN since 2006, Future Links has helped coach and encourage more than 748,000 boys and girls since its inception in 1996.

Newfoundland golf pro and coach Jim Stick says introducing golf to young children sometimes demands the instincts and timing of a professional clown. “I’ve been known to hit practice shots using beach balls,” says Stick, 51, a St. John’s-based CPGA instructor who has conducted Future Links clinics throughout Newfoundland and Labrador for the past 11 years. “If that doesn’t work, a box of Timbits is guaranteed to get their attention.

“With really young kids, the key is to make their introduction to golf fun,” says Stick, who also helps coach the province’s top juniors. “We show them the grip and other basics and let them have at it. Sometimes we mix a few pink or yellow golf balls into our supply and give a dollar to whoever finds them.”

What Stick loves best is watching children’s faces light up when they first launch a ball into the air-one sweet swing of the club is often enough to get them hooked.

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In Canada, there are loads of opportunities to participate in local tournaments and competitions. With a few wins-and a lot of hard work and discipline-kids are getting noticed.

“We start looking at golfers around the age of 13 who are making a name for themselves in CN Future Links tourneys and other events,” Brunton says. The best of Canada’s young golf talent will eventually make their way onto the RCGA’s five-player National Men’s or Women’s Development Team and then the four-player National Men’s or Women’s Team.

Brunton, who is regarded as one of North America’s leading golf coaches and educators, works closely with the CPGA and provincial golf associations in identifying player talent and developing training procedure for coaches. He is impressed by the level of commitment demanded of young golfers who aspire to play on the professional tours. “Players must practise three to six hours a day, doing drills and hitting hundreds of balls,” says Brunton. “It’s tedious and tiring, but absolutely necessary.”

Most of the national team’s resources are focused on nurturing gifted players whose talents are already apparent. But Brunton and his scouts also work hard not to overlook golfers whose potential is less obvious.

“Look at Mike Weir,” he says. “Weir didn’t win a Canadian or U.S. amateur title, but through hard work and commitment has gone on to win the Masters and seven other PGA Tour events. We’re trying to show all our young players the same way forward.”

No young golf star is a sure bet for PGA Tour success-many have flamed out-but Nick Taylor, 21, a collegiate standout from Abbotsford, definitely has people talking.

Taylor, a member of the Canadian National Men’s Team, was the RCGA’s top male amateur golfer in 2008. He just missed making the halfway cut at last summer’s U.S. Open, and tied for 53rd in the RBC Canadian Open. An economics major at the University of Washington, where he plays on a golf scholarship, Taylor continued his hot streak by winning his second consecutive U.S. college tournament in February.

“Nick has all the tools,” says Brunton. “He’s not the longest hitter, but he has heart.”
Taylor started playing golf when he was 11, encouraged by his father and his older brother Josh, who is now on the golf team at the University of Texas at El Paso. Nick joined the RCGA’s National Men’s Development Team at age 17, eager to represent his country. Players attend training camps and international competitions if named to the travelling team.

“It’s so cool playing for Canada,” says Taylor, who finished second in the individual standings at last year’s World Amateur Team Championships in Adelaide, Australia. “There’s a tremendous support system and a real feeling of family.”

With every win, Taylor can feel himself getting closer to his goal of playing professionally. “I still have a way to go,” he says, “but I’m already living my dream.”

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Crazy about golf since she first swung a club at age five in her hometown of Sherbrooke, Maude-Aimée LeBlanc is now a 20-year-old psychology major at Purdue University in
Indiana, which she attends on a golf scholarship. She is also a member of the National Women’s Team in Canada and may be the best hope for stardom among a bumper crop of female candidates.

“Maude-Aimée is part of a blossoming of women’s golf in this country,” says Dean Spriddle, the National Women’s Team coach since 1999. “We’re already competitive in every international event we play, and there’s tremendous talent coming up in the ten-to-14 age bracket.”

Standing over six feet tall, LeBlanc impresses with her long drives, a crucial advantage in women’s golf. She is technically proficient in every aspect of the game, but is particularly deadly with her wedges.

LeBlanc gave notice of her potential late in 2006, when she became the first Canadian to win the Junior Orange Bowl International Golf Championship in Coral Gables, Fla. Past champions of the prestigious tournament include superstars Annika Sorenstam, Grace Park and Paula Creamer.

“That victory was a kind of validation for me,” LeBlanc says. “I really began to feel like I might be good enough to play professionally one day.”

LeBlanc went on to earn the Quebec Women’s Amateur title last summer, as well as placing fourth in the individual standings at the World Amateur Team Championships in Australia. The National Women’s Team also finished fourth, up from 13th two years earlier.

Even LeBlanc’s choice of psychology as her major at Purdue is directed towards a future career on the Ladies Professional Golf Association Tour. “They say that golf is 90 percent mental,” LeBlanc says. “I’m looking for every advantage I can get.”

Golf mother Kylie Delfino of Ottawa, who signed up her two stepdaughters for a weekly golf clinic at the Rideau View Golf and Country Club in Manotick, Ont., last summer, was astounded by the new skill sets golf has given them.

“The biggest thing I noticed is that because they’re in an environment which is very much adult, they’ve become very confident in communicating with the adult members,” says Delfino. She also loves that the sport gave the girls, ages eight and 13, a new community of friends with whom they have stayed in touch all winter.

“My elder stepdaughter has really developed the ability to communicate with teachers, and my younger stepdaughter has really developed her ability to set goals. She wanted to be able to swim 100 metres in butterfly stroke and told me, ‘I’m going to have to work up to that, like I did in golf.'”

And Delfino is happy to see them having a great time on their own. “The club made the clinics so much fun for the girls,” says Delfino, “that we enrolled them as members.”

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