If you were dropped into the middle of the driving range with no other frame of reference, you never would have guessed that this was the biggest event in women’s golf, the pinnacle of decades grinding and competing in tournaments far and wide. For those who make the field, there is no stage grander than the U.S. Women’s Open. As 2022 champion Minjee Lee said immediately after holing the final putt at Pine Needles in Southern Pines, N.C., “It is the one (championship) that every young girl wants to win; the one that, when I was on the putting green at home, I would always tell myself, ‘This is to win the U.S. Open.’”
But in the middle of that championship, just off the first fairway, a wedge shot from the final green and buffered on one side by the covered hitting bays of the club’s range, Pine Needles looked more like an after-school carnival than a major venue. On that strip of ground, just a few steps from the golf shop and lodge, girls ages four through 12 engaged in the game, not by watching their heroes, but by chipping and putting and playing games with whiffle balls, pinwheels, cones, targets and teachers. They lined up for chances to win prizes from contests like tic-tac-toe chipping and hitting a Velcro-covered ball at a giant dart board. This kids’ zone wasn’t an afterthought for the USGA or the LPGA that co-sponsored it. Developing young girls has been central to the mission for more than 20 years.
In fact, the single most successful grow-the-game program of the current millennium is LPGA*USGA Girls Golf, a nationwide, introductory-level platform that brings young girls together for games, instruction and social opportunities they might not find elsewhere. It was not a clinic that got wedged into a professional major like a hospitality tent for a financial services company. There were 14 alumni from the LPGA*USGA Girls Golf program in the field at the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open. A couple of weeks prior, at the Cognizant Founders Cup in New Jersey, the field had 17 LPGA*USGA Girls Golf alums.
The last week of June, the LPGA Foundation announced that Mariah Stackhouse, a former junior and amateur standout at Stanford University who has been on the LPGA Tour since 2017, is the new girls’ golf ambassador, following such stalwarts as Stacy Lewis, Brittany Lincicome, Lexi Thompson and Tiffany Joh in that role.
But the tour presence and USGA push are not what make this program successful. Players like Stackhouse and events like the kids’ area at the U.S. Women’s Open are the icing. The cake comes at more than 500 clubs and courses around the country.
The brainchild of an LPGA professional named Sandy LaBauve, LPGA*USGA Girls Golf began because Sandy, who lived and worked in Phoenix, wanted to introduce her two daughters to the game.
“When we wanted our daughters to start learning, we recruited their friends to play,” LaBauve said. “We took 10 girls from a softball team and started doing golf clinics for them twice a week. We had 15 minutes of social time with snacks and stories before instruction began. My husband, Mike, set up a batting net and let the girls hit softballs off of a T-Ball tee. We related what they already knew to what they were going to learn. We kept a very athletic approach.”
That approach was similar to the way LaBauve learned the game from her mother, an artist and good amateur player named Sherry Lumpkin. By infusing games and social interactions into the process, LaBauve found that young girls who might never consider golf flocked to the clinics, not out of a love for the game, but because it became the cool place to be.
“Here we are 30 years later with almost 100,000 girls engaged in LPGA*USGA Girls Golf,” said Laura Diaz, the senior director of the LPGA Foundation, which oversees the girls’ golf program. “That is tremendous growth. As late as 2011, it was still about only 17% of all junior golfers engaged in the game were girls. Today 34% of junior golfers are girls. We believe that is because our LPGA teaching professionals are teaching girls golf skills and life skills with the game.”
The program is, indeed, three decades old, but its resilience and growth can be attributed to its partnership with the USGA. Under former president Judy Bell, the association committed grant funds for expansion and branding. Instructors were trained; games were refined; gadgets were provided; materials were marketed; television ads were produced and aired, and word-of-mouth in the little-girl community spread like a song from the latest boy band.
Nowhere was that more evident than at this year’s Cognizant Founders Cup, an LPGA Tour event at Upper Montclair Golf Club in New Jersey, about a 10-minute drive from The Meadowlands. That weekend the driving range had more kids than LPGA Tour players. Young girls stood in line for coaching and games under a banner that heralded the program’s tagline: “Little Girls, Big Dreams.”
“This is what it’s all about,” said Stephanie Peareth, the girl’s golf site director in Miami, Florida, who has been nationally recognized for her innovation in junior instruction. “I wake up every day feeling so lucky that I get to work with girls who I know are going to change the world. I get to wake up and say, 'Okay, so my job today is to hang around with girls who I know are going to be the biggest, most influential female empowerment stars.' I just feel so lucky to be inspired by them. They make me better.”
Peareth was in New Jersey at the Founders Cup giving tips and encouraging young girls while wearing a yellow duck onesie. “That’s part of it,” she said, despite sweating profusely in the costume. “Before they can learn, kids have to want to come. Golf, historically, hasn’t done a good job of making the game kid friendly. In fact, the job has been quite poor. We’re trying to change that by striking the right balance between coaching and fun; between pushing and encouraging. That’s why the program is successful.”
“What does the next generation of golf look like? You see it at LPGA*USGA Girls Golf,” Diaz said. “Today, we have 520 sites, which is an uptick from previous years. Now, we are at a point on the foundation level where we are talking about scalability. We have grown exponentially recently because we have opened up (girls’ golf) facilities at TopGolf and Top Tracer Ranges, and places other than your traditional green-grass golf courses; places where, historically, you might not attract young girls. The cool thing about Girls Golf is that it can be created and held almost anywhere.”
USGA grants have totaled about $6 million so far. But the program’s success is grass roots. More than 70% of First Tee facilities have LPGA*USGA Girls Golf programs.
“The largest programs are Miami and Phoenix,” Diaz said. “They have between 200 to 300 girls participating. Phoenix operates out of seven facilities. Miami is out of one. And when you see it - when you see those girls show up and see what (Peareth) is doing - it’s incredibly impressive.”
It’s also easy for operators to get involved. Outreach to either the LPGA or USGA gets the ball rolling.
“Our goal is to have reached a total of a million girls by 2025,” Diaz said. “We’re ramping up our outreach efforts and doing so through some non-traditional ways.
“If I’m the girls’ golf coordinator at Jacksonville Country Club in Florida, for example, I might be able to reach 20 to 25 girls. But if I get involved with the Jacksonville public school system and conduct outreach there, now I’m reaching hundreds of girls. Those are the next steps we’re taking.
“Expanding outreach and the initial touch points for the girls is key to getting them to commit. That’s our main goal for the next three years.”