A Parent's Guide to Helping Your Young Golfer Succeed

Published on 10/11/2023 · 18 min readFore the future! Discover essential tips in this guide to nurture your young golfer's success on the green, no matter where they are in their golf journey!
Brendon Elliott, Golf Expert
By Golf Expert Brendon Elliott

Students at the Little Linksters Golf Academy. Photo courtesy of Brendon Elliott

For nearly two decades, I have dedicated my career to helping young people find their way into golf. Additionally, I have spent a great deal of time and resources on making sure that kids who fall in love with the game continue to grow that passion for it over time.

One of the core values of PGA professionals is to help get more people into the game and keep them playing. There are many ways to go about this and many different hats a golf professional can wear in doing so. I have chosen to work with young golfers.

In the early 2000s, I began this mission as a high school golf coach in the greater Orlando area. Some of the players whom I had the privilege of working with to help instill the love of the game in and develop their own game include PGA Tour member Sam Ryder and accomplished PGA professional Zach Canfield.

In 2008, I developed a program that I called Little Linksters. The original program’s mission was to introduce kids ages 3-8 to golf. These ages are much younger than the typical ages at which kids have historically found their way into the game.

Brendon Elliott on the Golf Channel. Photo courtesy of Brendon Elliott

What started as a single program at one daycare center in Lake Mary, FL, has blossomed into multiple programs for all ages throughout central Florida. Programs are now inclusive of all ages and abilities, including youth with special needs.

Because of my Little Linksters team's and my efforts, I have been awarded over 25 prestigious golf industry awards in coaching, youth player development, and education. Among those awards was the prestigious PGA of America’s National Youth Player Development Award, which I won in 2017.

During this journey, which continues today, I have spoken on numerous occasions to large audiences on youth golf player development; appeared on television, including the Golf Channel, on multiple occasions; been on numerous radio shows; and written hundreds of articles on the topic of junior golf for media outlets such as PGA.com, PGA Magazine, Golf.com, and more.

Today, I want to share with you — and, more specifically, parents of junior golfers — how you can help your child succeed at playing and enjoying the game and growing as a person through it.

Brendon Elliott, PGA speaking at a PGA event. Photo courtesy of Brendon Elliott

Where To Start In Helping Your Child Be Successful in Golf

Brendon Elliott, PGA at the Golf Channel studio. Photo courtesy of Brendon Elliott

One of the first things you must do in developing a strategy to help your child succeed in golf is to evaluate where they are currently. Please look over the following questions. After you have considered them, you can start formulating a plan of action that will lead to their success and enjoyment of the game.

  • Is your child only now showing an interest in the game but has not started yet?
  • Have they started playing but are more of a beginner?
  • Are they more of an intermediate player looking to advance their skills?
  • Are they competitive players now?
  • How old are they?
  • Do they play other sports?
  • How would you describe their level of athleticism?

Much of what I will share with you today comes from my years of observation as a successful youth golf coach and the training and education I have received along the way.

Some of the most valuable training I have had was through my PGA coach and American Development Model (ADM) training. This strategic program model was birthed through a collaborative effort between the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), USA Golf, the PGA of America, the Masters, the LPGA, the PGA TOUR, and the United States Golf Association (USGA).

What has come from the work of the above-mentioned organizations is a plan of attack for golf coaches like myself to combine our own experiences and expertise with a specific and measured development model.

Through the ADM model, an objective was developed that states:

By creating early positive experiences for all participants, the American Development Model will keep more golfers engaged in our sport longer, with four outcomes:

  • Develop fundamental skills that transfer between sports
  • Provide an appropriate avenue to fulfill an individual’s athletic and personal potential
  • Create a generation that loves golf and physical activity, and transfer that passion and healthy lifestyle to the next generation
  • Grow both the general athlete population and the pool of elite athletes from which future LPGA and PGA Tour players, major champions, and U.S. Olympians and Paralympians are selected

To help determine where your child may be currently with their golf skills as well as in their ability to learn and enjoy the game, ADM developed the following age-based model:

ACTIVE START (Ages 0-6 Boys, 0-6 Girls)

Objectives:

  • Provide organized physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day for toddlers and at least 60 minutes a day for preschoolers
  • Provide unstructured physical activity and active play for at least 60 minutes daily and up to several hours daily for toddlers and preschoolers. Toddlers and preschoolers should not be sedentary for more than 60 minutes at a time except while sleeping
  • Provide infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with opportunities to participate in daily physical activity that promotes fitness and movement skills

FUNdamentals (Ages 6-9 Boys, 6-8 Girls)

Objectives:

  • Practice becoming more proficient in fundamental movement skills before introducing more sport-specific skills
  • Emphasize the overall development of the child’s physical capabilities and fundamentals of movement skills, the ABC’s of athleticism: agility, balance, coordination, and speed
  • Teach appropriate and correct running, jumping, and throwing techniques
  • Introduce basic flexibility exercises
  • Develop speed, power, and endurance using games

LEARN TO PLAY (Ages 9-12 Boys, 8-11 Girls)

Objectives:

  • Further develop all fundamental movement skills and teach general, fundamental golf skills. Otherwise, a significant window of opportunity is lost, compromising the ability of the young golfer to reach their full potential
  • Develop strength using exercises that incorporate the child’s own body weight
  • Introduce hopping and bounding exercises or routines to develop strength and power
  • Further development of endurance through continuous activity games and relays

PLAY TO IMPROVE (Ages 12-16 Boys, 11-15 Girls)

Objectives:

  • Introduce aerobic training as the child matures to develop further skill levels, speed, strength, and flexibility
  • Encourage flexibility training, as rapid growth of bones during this stage leads to stress on tendons, ligaments, and muscles
  • Note that aerobic and strength training depends on youth maturation levels. For this reason, the periods during which aerobic and strength training is emphasized depend on whether an athlete is in an early, average, or someone who matured late

PLAY TO COMPETE (Ages 16-23 Boys, 15-21 Girls)

Objectives:

  • Provide year-round, high-intensity, individual training
  • Teach golfers who are now proficient at performing basic, sport-specific skills to perform those skills under various competitive conditions during training
  • Place special emphasis on optimum preparation by modeling competitions in training
  • Individually tailor fitness programs, recovery programs, psychological preparation, and technical development

PLAY TO WIN (Ages 19+ Boys, 18+ Girls)

Objectives:

  • Train golfers to peak at major competitions — performance on demand
  • Ensure that training is characterized by high intensity and relatively high volume all year round
  • Allow frequent preventative breaks to prevent physical and mental burnout
  • Change the training-to-competition ratio to 25:75, with the competition percentage including competition-specific training and actual competitions

PLAY FOR LIFE

Objectives:

  • Have fun
  • Inclusive programming available for all (age, gender, race, socio-economic status)
  • Encourage to play as often as possible
  • Include physical fitness as part of programming
  • Include social aspects as part of the programming
  • Encourage practice and the driving range time for game improvement
  • Encourage individual and group lessons and events
  • Move from highly competitive golf to lifelong competitive sport through club and local fun golf events

(Information compiled by Brendon Elliott with information from PGA.Coach/ADM)

Regardless of how fast your child starts to develop their golf skills, their emotional and mental development do indeed remain the same for most based on age. When a young golfer is in any of the first three levels in the ADM model, it is absolutely fine to allow them to compete. In fact, for many years, I hosted a tournament series for kids ages 3-18.

In these cases, however, it is critical to remember that the majority of kids play sports to have fun. You can never lose sight of that as this is almost always rated in studies as the number-one reason kids play any sport at any age.

A Realistic Assessment of Your Child’s Game

If your child shows a great deal of promise, and they are asking about competing, I would follow these simple steps:

  • First, you will need to find a certified PGA or LPGA golf coach if they are not already working with one. Once you do, see if they can provide you with an honest assessment of your golfer’s skills.
  • Secondly, seeing what competition looks like in a youth setting is important for both you and your child. Go out to a junior golf event and simply watch. Observe how kids in your child's age group play in a competition and how they conduct themselves.
  • Third, learn the rules. Playing by the game's rules and having good etiquette is a very important part of competing. Both you and your child should study these aspects of the game. In order to have a fun and enjoyable experience while competing, this is a very important area to be competent in.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, it is critical that having fun and enjoying the experience, above all else, is number one. I cannot stress this enough.

Getting Instruction and Working With a Coach

ADM has very specific recommendations by age on how a young golfer should be learning the game. Without question, this is a fabulous guide to follow.

You should look for more group programming if your child falls within the early stages of the ADM model. From Active Start and through to the FUNdamentals levels of ADM, group programming should focus on fun and age-appropriate physical development.

The following programs are some of the very best national initiatives for kids. A few are led by some of golf’s governing bodies, such as the PGA of America, LPGA, and USGA; others are independent organizations and companies. All are considered to be among the best starting points for young golfers.

PROGRAM: PGA Jr. League

  • Description: A team golf program where kids compete in a fun and interactive scramble format against other teams. Practice days and matches are included.
  • Developed by: PGA of America
  • Meant for: Kids of all abilities, aged 5-17
  • Originated: 2011
  • Website: www.pgajrleague.com

PROGRAM: LPGA*USGA Girls Golf

  • Description: Fun and interactive group programming for girls ages 5-17
  • Developed by: LPGA, in partnership with the United States Golf Association
  • Meant for: Girls of all ability levels, aged 5-17
  • Originated: 1989
  • Website: www.girlsgolf.org

PROGRAM: PGA Junior Camps

  • Description: PGA Junior Camps are designed for junior golfers of all ability levels. Participants are segmented into smaller groups based on their experience and skill levels in order to create the most favorable learning environment possible. Locations nationwide and led by PGA and LPGA Professionals.
  • Developed by: Marc Haddad, and the program is licensed through the PGA of America
  • Meant for: Specific camps for kids of all abilities, aged 5-18
  • Originated: 2015
  • Website: www.pgajuniorgolfcamps.com

PROGRAM: U.S. Kids Golf

  • Description: The U.S. Kids Golf Foundation offers a golf instruction program for kids of all ages and abilities. Additionally, they educate and certify coaches to run programs nationwide and abroad. A worldwide tournament program is also available for all abilities.
  • Developed by: U.S. Kids Golf Foundation
  • Meant for: Girls and boys of all abilities, aged 5-17
  • Originated: 2000
  • Website: www.uskidsgolf.com

PROGRAM: Operation 36

  • Description: Operation 36 provides beginners and intermediate golfers with one of the most effective developmental programs in golf. Become a skilled golfer by following a motivating roadmap to shooting par (36) or better for 9 holes!
  • Developed by: PGA professionals Ryan Dailey and Matt Reagan
  • Meant for: Golfers of all ages, from 5 to 105!
  • Originated: 2010
  • Website: www.operation36.golf

PROGRAM: Drive Chip & Putt

  • Description: Drive, Chip, and Putt provides aspiring junior golfers ages 7-15 an opportunity to play with their peers in qualifiers around the country. Participants who advance through local, sub-regional, and regional qualifying in each age/gender category earn a place in the National Finals, conducted at Augusta National Golf Club the Sunday before the Masters Tournament and is broadcast live by Golf Channel.
  • Developed by: The Masters, PGA of America, and USGA
  • Meant for: All kids, aged 7-15
  • Originated: 2013
  • Website: www.drivechipandputt.com

You can find programming like those national initiatives listed above at golf clubs nationwide. Additionally, many top golf professionals offer their own unique youth golf programs at most golf courses throughout the U.S. and abroad.

It is important to understand that in many group programs, especially those for younger ages, you may not even see your aspiring golfer with a golf club or golf ball in early sessions: running, jumping, or kicking a soccer ball may be some of the activities you see. Don’t worry — this is by design and in conjunction with ADM recommendations. If coaches running programs are doing things like this, you are absolutely in good hands!

It is important to not only understand the different levels of ADM but also what the key principles are.

The Five Key Principles of the American Development Model:

  1. Universal access to create opportunity for all
  2. Developmentally appropriate activities that emphasize motor and foundational skills. The golfer dropout rate will be reduced when appropriate activity is introduced
  3. Multi-sport and multi-activity participation
  4. Fun, engaging, and progressively challenging atmosphere
  5. Quality coaching at all levels

Private Coaching

Brendon Elliott, PGA coaching a student. Photo courtesy of Brendon Elliott

Per the ADM model, private coaching should start a little later in the process and when kids are a little older. In my own private coaching program, students are 13 and older and fall in the Play to Improve level of ADM.

As I bring on a new student, I rely heavily on a process that I have had in place for the past three years. To start, I have an initial screening test to discover the student’s current skill level. I only take on students who are intermediate to advanced and are looking to take competition more seriously. Additionally, I assess the golfer's mental and emotional levels, which are critical in helping develop them as golfers and young men and women. Finally, I have real conversations about goals the golfer has, both short and long term.

Without pressure and in the spirit of keeping things fun, I have students understand that they are the ones who will be held accountable for their own success.

As a coach, and as suggested by the American Development Model, I am looking to move past old stereotypical images of what a golf coach used to look like. I do not have my students beating golf balls on the range for hours and hours and barking orders at them as they go. As a coach, I intend to have a holistic approach with long-term development as the pathway to lasting success as both a golfer and as a person. To achieve this, I need to ensure that the student is always enjoying the experience and keeping things in perspective. Golf is a game and is meant to be fun, regardless of how advanced and accomplished they may be as a player.

A coaching philosophy like this is what you should look for in a coach.

“Quality coaches are critical to athlete development; therefore, quality coaching education is imperative for athlete success at all levels. Quality coaching requires a youth coach to be qualified and highly knowledgeable about their sport and understand effective communication, practice planning, and athlete development. The very best coaches view themselves as lifelong learners and are always working toward improving themselves.”

— per “Golf’s American Development Model” playbook

Goal Setting, The Right Way

For young golfers who are more intermediate to advanced in their development, setting goals on a regular basis should be a given. I suggest doing so with a 3-, 6-, and 12-month target goal. Each goal is reevaluated regularly and, if needed, adjusted, including the time frame in which it is to be reached.

A young golfer's short- and mid-range goals become the building blocks to reaching their long-term goals. The correct way to set these goals is through the SMART Goals strategy.

SMART Goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant
  • Time-Bound

Goals should also be set in all the specific areas of the game. These include the following:

  • Full Swing (Driver)
  • Full Swing (Woods and Hybrids)
  • Full Swing (Irons)
  • Trouble Shots
  • Distance Wedges
  • Pitching, Chipping, Bunker Shots
  • Putting
  • Playing Strategy
  • Mental and Emotional

To keep track of progress, the golfer should get into the habit of journaling and keeping statistics. This will help them have a running record and history of how they are doing, where they have been, and how they are moving in relation to their specific goals.

Picture of teen golfer Bretton Mackiewicz. Photo courtesy of Bretton Mackiewicz

The Mental and Emotional Side of the Game

As young golfers are developing their technical skills and passion for the game, it is of critical importance to also develop their mental toughness, as well as their emotional, reactionary abilities.

Golf is a tough sport — anyone who plays can agree with that. For kids who don't see their brains and emotions fully develop until they are in their early 20s, golf can provide quite the rollercoaster ride.

The game of golf puts an overwhelming emphasis on the individual and really puts one’s strengths and weaknesses under the microscope. Other sports like basketball, football, and baseball are team based, and the success of the team comes from several individual athletes. With golf, it's just you and the course, so there is no hiding or hoping a teammate can help.

That can be tough for anyone, let alone a young golfer.

Other Important Aspects of Helping Your Child Succeed at Golf

As I come up the 18th fairway, I wanted to give you a few more important aspects that you need to consider in helping your child succeed in golf.

  • Defeat and Failure in Perspective: Golf may be one of the most difficult sports in the world to get a “win” in. Take this fact as proof: Tiger Woods has the highest winning percentage in PGA Tour history at 22% (93 wins out of 421 starts); that's right, only 22%. Rory McIlroy clocks in at an 8.3% success rate (31 wins out of 372 starts). For some really eye-opening stats, look at the 2022-2023 PGA TOUR Winning Percentage.

The bottom line is that you “lose” far more than you “win,” and the best of the best may win 2 out of every 10 starts. You have to keep what you define as success in perspective. I love the following quote from Dr. Bob Rotella, one of golf’s foremost mental coaches:

“Golf is about how well you accept, respond to, and score with your misses, much more so than it is a game of your perfect shots.”

“Our children should never think that our love of them depends upon the outcome of a competition. If we get upset, sad, or angry when they lose, our kids see that and perform worse. Regardless of whether they win or lose, whether they play well or poorly, after a competition, tell them, ‘I love watching you play.’ That’s it. These simple words help remove the fear of failure and expectations of success, which is a paralyzer for many young athletes.”

John’s 2014 TED Talk on youth sports has had nearly half a million views.

  • Hard Work and Fun Can Go Hand in Hand: Encourage your kids to practice and play hard but, above all else, to have fun in doing so.
  • Fitness, Stretching, Nutrition, Hydration, and Sleep: Nobody can be at their best when any of these things are out of whack. Help your child be at their best in all aspects of their life, including golf, by focusing on all aspects of their health.

Summing It All Up

Youth golf development has been at the heart of my existence as a PGA member and golf industry veteran for almost two decades. There is nothing better than seeing a kid fall in love with the game.

There are very few other sports that can be played as long as golf can, and it is one of the best family-based, multigenerational activities there is. That is something that parents can feel good about when their child takes an interest in the game.

Golf also helps in developing youngsters into great adults. There are countless life lessons that are taught when a kid picks up a golf club and falls in love with this amazing sport.

If you have any questions on youth golf, please feel free to reach out to me here on Curated.

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