I had a great time covering the PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey, last week for Sports Illustrated Kids. My mission was to understand how the best golfers in the world got there, who helped them along the way, and what advice they might have for kids interested in golf.
There were three themes that seemed to come up in almost every interview: golf should be fun; kids who want to pursue golf should play other sports because that will help them become better golfers; and golf is a sport in which all types of players and personalities can be successful, so it’s important to just be yourself.
Focus on Having Fun
Jason Day is currently the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world. He was seriously committed to winning last week — he finished one behind winner Jimmy Walker — but he was one of many pros who wanted to remind kids that enjoying golf as a game with your friends will lead to a love of the sport.
I asked Day what advice he would give to kids who want to play golf. “When I was a kid, I played other sports,” replied Day. “I played cricket and other school sports, like schoolyard football. I always knew I loved golf. I had a group of friends at the golf course that I enjoyed. I would tell kids to just go to the golf course, play golf, have fun. And always make it fun, because you don't want to be burned out.”
He added, “They just need to go out and have fun like I did back in the day. I played a lot of golf when I was growing up. I didn't really practice much until I was 14 or so, and that's when I really knew that I really wanted to become a professional golfer.”
The PGA is trying to make golf more fun and accessible for kids everywhere. Darrell Crall, the PGA of America’s Chief Operating Officer, supports focusing on fun and getting as many kids as possible interested in golf. He is responsible for the successful Drive, Chip & Putt and PGA Junior League Golf programs, and he told me: “I wanted to make sure we had an opportunity for kids to come to the game that was easy to understand. It’s a team, you have practices, you have games, and you have jerseys with numbers on the back. The most important thing is you do it together and it’s fun. Everybody understands team sports, and golf needed a team sport as well.”
Play A Lot of Sports
Many of the professionals I spoke to told stories about getting their first set of clubs from their parents at a relatively young age and also spoke about playing other sports like baseball, basketball, cricket, and soccer.
Rory McIlroy, who has four career major wins and is currently the No. 4 ranked player in the world, said golf was not his favorite sport growing up, but it wound up being his best. He also played many sports as a kid, such as tennis, soccer, and rugby, before he ultimately committed to golf.
Keegan Bradley, winner of the 2011 PGA Championship, had this advice: “Play every sport you can — don’t just play golf — and try to love the game first off.” He played every sport until he was 16, at which point he focused on golf. Bradley believes the skills he learned playing other sports helped him become a better golfer.
Webb Simpson, who won the U.S. Open in 2012, would tell kids to “keep having fun with the game, and don’t spend too much time on the range. Just keep hitting it hard and keep having fun with it.”
Jordan Spieth, who won his first major last spring when he was 21, would agree: It’s about making golf fun. "I started playing nine-hole events, traveling around when I played baseball as my No. 1 sport,” he said. “I really fell in love with [golf by] playing those events, being able to feel like it wasn't a seven-hour day at the course.”
Finally, Matt Kuchar will be representing the U.S. when golf returns to the Olympics this month in Brazil. It may be the fact that he played so many sports when he was growing up in Florida that helped him get seven PGA Tour wins over his career:
Just Be(ef) Yourself, Man!
If you are looking for someone out on the course who looks like he is having a lot of fun, look no further than Andrew “Beef” Johnston. Beef is an English professional who recently won his first title at the Open de España in April. He celebrated by dressing up as a piñata and throwing a big party with family and friends! The Beef stands out not only for his unusual look — he sports a long beard — but also for his constant smile and upbeat personality. He loves to interact with fans, who yell out “Beeeeffffff!” after each shot.
He got his nickname after a childhood friend made fun of his hair, calling him a Beef-head. He turned the tables by embracing it. I asked Beef what advice he would give to kids who are different.
Beef smiled and replied, “Just be yourself. Obviously when I was growing up, I was watching Tiger, Sergio, Phil and stuff like that, and I'd go and imitate shots and stuff like that. But as a personality and stuff, just be yourself, man. Because like the more I've been myself, the more comfortable I've felt out on the golf course. The more I've just had fun and been me, the better I've played. So you've just got to be comfortable in who you are, what you do. Don't be ashamed to be different or anything, you know. That's you. And no matter who you are, where you are, where you're from, people should embrace that. Just feel comfortable and enjoy your golf, man, or whatever you do.”
The great pros I interviewed all played other sports when they were young and emphasized the importance of kids having fun and not taking golf too seriously. It was nice to see that Beef and many other pros at the PGA were still having fun and winning.
Photographs by (from top): Montana Pritchard/The PGA of America/Getty Images; Max Bonnstetter