Carrie Julie knows Sawmill Golf Course won’t be around in 30 years if she and her husband, Jeremy – the owner-operator pair at the course near St. Catharines – don’t put in a grow-the-game effort now.
“That’s simply what it comes down to,” she says.
Sawmill was one of the inaugural winners of Golf Canada’s National Facility Award for Junior Golf in 2022 (awarded “to a facility that provides exceptional access and membership opportunities for junior golfers”) and Julie knows that drumming up even more interest in the game amongst youngsters starts with one thing leading to another – opportunity to access.
There is a myriad of junior programs at Sawmill, she explains, including a golf-and-hockey camp that targets that hockey-playing group if kids and gets them interested in golf (“The retention has been off the charts”) and Try Golf Days, supported by Stephen Ames, that happen on Saturdays. Three hundred and fifty-two kids tried golf this year.
The club also made a pact with its members that the only tournaments it will host are for juniors.
When Julie and Sawmill won the Junior Golf Opportunity Award last year, she said she accepted it on behalf of the 300-or-so members. They step up. They know the importance of this program. She often turns away volunteers for junior tournaments because she has just too much interest.
The club made this choice, and she knows it was the right one.
“We certainly haven’t made the commitment to juniors for pats on the back, but I have to tell you, it was a really nice honour in the inaugural year to win the award,” Julie says. “It really cemented we’re doing the right things for the right reasons.”
Through the start of the COVID-19 pandemic golf saw a boom unlike any other in recent history in Canada. Tiger-Mania couldn’t hold a candle to how many people started to play golf, picked golf up again, or played more golf than they ever had before. It resulted in the popularity of the sport in Canada being as high as it ever had been. A lot of courses, however, needed to make a choice they were never faced with before on junior golf because of the demand for tee times. Could they still give up a tee-time for $20 for a youngster if they had a line of adults waiting to pay $100+ for the same time?
“We’re super empathetic about some of the unintended challenges that a participation spike creates,” Golf Canada chief sport officer Kevin Blue says. “But at the same time, we’re trying to think about the health of our sport over the next 30, 40, or 50 years and clearly junior golf is a part of that.”
Blue has spoken at length about his time growing up as a non-family sponsored junior member at the Bayview Country Club, which, he says, allowed him to develop as a golfer significantly. A non-family sponsored junior program allows junior golfers to play and practice at a private club for a reasonable annual fee without their parents having to join. While many clubs across Canada continue to have programs like this, some have scaled back access for juniors due to increased demand for tee times. Blue suggested that all private clubs in Canada should consider adding a limited number of non-family sponsored juniors – for example, two girls and two boys – to help some tournament-playing youngsters have access to quality facilities.
“They pay a reasonable annual fee for being there […] and the club rallies behind these players,” Blue says. “A casualty (due to golf’s increased popularity through the COVID-19 pandemic) in some instances has been these non-family sponsored junior programs. Or at least shrinking them. We understand the influences involved and why these choices are made. But at the same time, that’s had a direct impact on (junior) opportunities to be able to train and practice and develop.”
Nick Taylor, the three-time PGA Tour winner and – of course – the reigning RBC Canadian Open champion, was one of those youngsters able to take advantage of an affordable junior program. Growing up in Abbotsford, B.C. (about an hour outside of Vancouver) Taylor recalls his parents paying about $220 to have full access to the course (minus, he thinks, sometimes on the weekend) where he would be at the course every day from sun up to sun down.
“It was the greatest babysitter,” Taylor says with a laugh.
Now as a father of two, he reflects on the opportunity afforded to him by this junior-golf program and those are the two key things he hopes other clubs across the country will be able to offer – accessible, affordable golf for kids.
With Taylor’s win at the RBC Canadian Open now four months in the rear-view mirror, he’s been able to reflect on his position in Canadian golf as someone who can inspire the next generation, like Mike Weir did to him after Weir’s 2003 Masters triumph.
Taylor has his own charity golf tournament each year at home in B.C. and this year there was the Nick Taylor Junior Golf Day, with 94 young golfers asking questions and watching Taylor hit balls. Monies from his charity event went right back into the community.
“It’s obviously very important […] to maybe be that person to get some more kids in the game and get them determined to be as best as they can be,” Taylor says.
Taylor had affordable access to a course that was supportive of kids learning the game and becoming the next generation of golfers in this country. Julie, at Sawmill, is committed to having a place like that.
There are plenty of other great examples across the country providing a safe space for kids to learn – and love – golf. But there’s still even more room to grow.
“I often say to my peers, ‘go on and copy and paste our program. It would be an honour,’” Julie says. “It’s who our club is.”
On Oct. 2, 2023, Blue took part in a Golf Journalists Association of Canada (GJAC) Virtual Summit with the topic being Courses Supporting Junior Golf.
The series is part of an ongoing GJAC series intended to help membership stay connected, as well as to generate discussion and opportunities around important issues in the game.
Panelists for this Summit included Blue, as well as Nick Taylor, 2023 RBC Canadian Open Champion and Carrie Julie, Owner/Operator, Sawmill Golf Club. The Summit was moderated by Dan Pino, Golf Canada’s Senior Director of Communications. You can watch it below.