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By David Gould

Big-League Profits

Trapper Perkins’ Tiny Tees program has filled a niche and created a substantial revenue stream at Arroyo Trabuco

When you grow up in a home that doubles as a day care center, you end up (like it or not) with preschool children around you—constantly. Trapper Perkins liked it fine, and the rug rats who filled his mother’s home on Oahu, Hawaii, left their imprint on him. To this day, Perkins tries to apply the simple, freewheeling mindset of a 4-year-old to the adult challenges he faces on a daily basis.
 
A member of the instruction staff at Arroyo Trabuco Golf Club in Mission Viejo, California, Perkins has made it the headquarters of Tiny Tees, a golf introduction program for ages 3 to 6 that’s been successful enough to be featured recently in major newspapers, on The Golf Channel and on local television news. What’s more, Perkins has incorporated the business and sketched out expansion plans, moves that suggest he may be bringing it to a course near you sometime soon.

Blessed with natural athletic talent and a broad range of interests, Perkins attended the University of Hawaii and played varsity volleyball while minoring in child development and family resources. He didn’t pick up golf until he was a sophomore in college, but proved good enough to turn pro within a few years.
 
“I have a decent grounding in child brain development, the academics of it,” says Perkins, 26. “But my approach to young kids is not influenced very much by what I’ve read in books.”

Education aside, Perkins’ Tiny Tees golf school business is a revelation to most people who hear about it—especially those who have some familiarity with the field of junior golf. John Mulvihill, an executive at Pacific Life with responsibility for the large insurer’s golf properties, marvels at what he experienced as a Tiny Tot dad bringing his 4-year-old son (and later his 4-year-old daughter) to Arroyo Trabuco.

“It’s an exciting example of how to grow the game,” Mulvihill says. “The program teaches more than a golf swing—it teaches kids how to wait in line, how to pay attention, how to wait their turn, how to be quiet when the coach is talking. It teaches them about the golf course, about the game of golf and about having fun.”

Today, Perkins’ concept and format is well-honed and multi-faceted, involving revenues from tuition, food-and-beverage sales, custom-club production and logo merchandise. But the truth is, Tiny Tees could probably make money even if it weren’t so well developed, given the complete non-existence of competition.

“Junior golf generally seems to be targeting kids when they are 8 years old and up,” Mulvihill notes. “This program starts them sooner and gets the parents involved. The parents stay on site and they come back and spend money.  I know for a fact I have spent over $350 at Arroyo Trabuco in 2007, and without this program I would not have walked on site. So if there are another 100-plus kids in the program, what would that generate?”

As successful as the program has become, Tiny Tees wasn’t an overnight hit—or even an offering at the club. The breakthrough came when a mother approached Perkins, whose program was limping along with just a few instruction participants, with two sons, ages 4 and 6, who wanted to learn golf. The woman quickly realized she couldn’t afford regular lessons, and took Perkins’ suggestion that she canvass her neighborhood looking for another half-dozen or so in the same age group to share the fixed price of the teacher’s time.

When the woman returned the following week with a group of six, the program was off and running. Next, with club approval, Perkins offered the program through the local youth summer program. The resulting word-of-mouth promotion led to the rapid expansion of Tiny Tots, including the addition of several new skill levels.

Indeed, the story of Tiny Tees is a striking exception to a growing trend. Golf participation has taken a hit from the cultural shift in which fathers devote far more time to watching and supporting their children who participate in sports. For Arroyo Trabuco and other Tiny Tees locations, this 3-to-6 program turns that trend on its ear—it swims with the tide, owing to the fact that parents must stay to watch the sessions.

Through some gradual evolution, Tiny Tees has stretched to five levels of learning and achievement. “Once I had them excited and confident about playing golf,” Perkins says, “I had no choice but to add new levels. Where else were they going to go?”

As each new session gets into gear, Perkins knows what he’s in for. Ensuring safety and sanity in and of itself is a formidable task. Responding to the vast variance in initial readiness is another.
 
“Tons of these kids are diagnosable with attention deficit disorder (ADD),” he says. “Some of them are autistic. There are lots of great kids. There are lots of horrible kids. Some are amazing athletes—you can see it in five seconds. Some of them are incredibly uncoordinated.”

The key that fits all these locks is open-mindedness to the idea of swinging the club, as opposed to hitting the ball. “I challenge any pro who teaches to find a nine-year-old who won’t attempt a hit,” Perkins explains. “They’re too old by that age to resist the temptation, no matter what you say to them. But a five-year-old will make a swing. You can teach them to make a swing, independent of the golf ball.” It’s the magic of trust in the teacher and pure imitation.

Naturally, a teaching pro unique enough to embrace and champion this age group is unfazed by the extreme cases of misbehavior. In fact, Perkins welcomes it—to a degree.

“I’m to the point where I almost prefer that really bad, really crazy kid,” says Perkins, adding that one of his central tenets is to never look down at a child. “You’re squatting and kneeling all day in this job, in order to keep your eye level at their eye level.”
 
Technically, keeping the left foot of most participants from moving during the swing is a major challenge. To solve the problem, Perkins “glues” the foot in place with a coating of lip balm that he applies to the sole of the kid’s sneaker. Or he fines them $100 for moving the foot—or else demands 100 push-ups.
 
“The lip balm glue always gets them,” Perkins quips. “You do dumb things that make a point. They crack up, but they see the emphasis you’re putting on something, and they buy into it.”

Instructors have to buy into the concept, too. Not surprisingly, recruiting and training teachers is an ongoing challenge. “Whoever signs on with us is going to have to be someone who absolutely loves little kids,” Perkins says. “I put them on a one-month trial period. If they can survive the first month, they’re probably right for the job.”
 
An unexpected outgrowth of the program is a burgeoning clubmaking business. Understandably, the children need clubs to participate, but only one or two. Problem is, very few manufacturers and/or retailers show a true interest in this segment. Tiny Tees does. “We custom-build one club for each kid,” Perkins says, “because there’s a very big difference between the club a 3-year-old needs versus the club a 6-year-old needs.”
 
Perkins and his coworkers devote large blocks of time to club assembly, once the new groups are registered and measured for equipment. To the parents making the investment, a single golf club for $16 is a minimal price. To the Tiny Tees spreadsheet, it’s a fast-multiplying revenue stream that bumps the numbers dramatically.

Meanwhile, the tuition fee of $100 to $130 per student for five weeks generates substantial numbers as well. The Tiny Tee sessions generally last five weeks and involve 300 participants, who are divided into time slots. With an average per-pupil fee of $110, the revenue multiplies out to $33,000 of “lesson” income per session (or $264,000 per year, based on eight annual sessions).
 
From a non-revenue perspective, the Tiny Tee program is developing players for the future while providing a program that emphasizes respect and a dedication to fun; improved coordination and increased physical confidence; and measurable golf improvement.

“We have a hole at Arroyo Trabuco that plays 238 yards from the front tees and has some huge bunkers,” Perkins says. “We bring our 3-, 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds out to that hole and tell them they have to par it. They get as many chances as they need. We’ve had 22 kids par the hole.”
 
Perkins, the pied piper of junior-junior golf, attributes that achievement to the magic of a young child’s unrealized athletic potential. Turns out there’s some magic in the actual business of unlocking it.

David Gould is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.