If you consider almost every aspect of the golf business – retail, agronomy, architecture and design, tournament operations, instruction, new players and more rounds: everything but food and beverage, HR and payroll – no company in golf has done more to grow the game than U.S. Kids Golf. In fact, it’s not close. From providing a revolving stream of ready-to-use equipment – open the box and take out a bag of clubs – to running the largest kids golf tour and youth championships in the world, to training youth coaches, to revolutionizing course design and making dramatic speed-of-play innovations – the 26-year-old Atlanta-based company has changed the industry for the better.
You see the results everywhere. Courses around the country have tee markers at nontraditional distances like 150 yards on a par four or a 40-yard par three. You also see it in golf shops where you’re likely to find a color-coded height chart, the kind of thing you used to see at carnivals – “You Must Be This Tall To Ride This Ride.” That is the fitting system for each progressive set of U.S. Kids Golf clubs. Then, if you visit a place like Pinehurst Resort in North Carolina or Jekyll Island, Georgia, you see it with the thousands of people who engage in U.S. Kids Golf local, regional, national, or world championships.
And to think, it all started in 1996 when an engineer named Dan Van Horn realized he couldn’t find golf clubs to fit his son.
“The idea (of the company) was not initially to grow the game,” said John Kim, the senior director of communications for U.S. Kids Golf. “It was originally to help parents enjoy golf with their kids. That’s what Dan was trying to do. He found that cut-down golf clubs were not working for his son. So with an engineering background, he created his own club by experimenting with removing some weight and putting in a different shaft. He thought that might help, and what do you know, it did.
“Not long after, he realized that he had a way for parents to enjoy golf with their kids.”
Most parents didn’t know that cutting down a golf club makes the shaft stiffer and the lie angle more upright. It also makes it more difficult to put on the correct grip. The original U.S. Kids Golf clubs were 25% lighter than adult and traditional junior sets with shafts designed for smaller muscles and grips to fit tiny hands.
“Once a line of equipment came out, there have been constant improvements,” Kim said. “It started out with three different sizes. Now we have three different lines (soon 4) and depending on the system, up to 10 sizes. It’s fully customized now.
“But it’s not enough to provide good equipment. The families needed outlets. The analogy we like to use is, what good would it be to learn to throw a ball, hit a ball and catch a ball if you didn’t have baseball games to play? So, that’s where the tournaments came in.”
It wasn’t quite that simple. In 2000, Van Horn created a foundation, separate from the for-profit equipment company, to develop a uniform training system for coaching young kids. Six-year-old kids don’t respond well to adult instruction that has been dumbed down. So, the “U.S. Kids Golf Coaches Institute” was launched to help provide uniform instruction that fit the physical, psychological and emotional needs of young golfers.
That same year, the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship was born. According to Kim, “The first one was in 2001 in Jekyll Island, and it was universally panned as a bad idea. In total there were about 300 kids that played. Then it moved to Williamsburg (Virginia). Now we’ve been at Pinehurst for 13 years, and it’s been wonderful. Today we have far more people trying to get into the field than can get in. But every year we’ll have 1,500 kids from more than 50 countries on 10 golf courses playing 13 different tournaments at once.
“Families make a celebratory trip out of it and many of the families stay much longer. You’ve got 100-plus kids competing in each age group, and of course, each field only has one winner. But we want everyone to have a good time… If you’ve ever seen the livestream of the parade we have before the start of play, you see the joy people have in being there.
“A high percentage of college players grew up playing our clubs and our tours and a good number of PGA Tour and LPGA Tour players did as well. Lexi Thompson won our World Championship. Justin Thomas competed. Patrick Reed competed. Collin Morikawa competed. We don’t celebrate our alumni as much as we should, but we have a large number of players you would recognize. In the last Olympic Games, 15 of the players were U.S. Kids Golf alums.
“The very first Netflix documentary was called “The Short Game,” produced by Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel. It was about our World Championship,” Kim said. “We have more kids than you can imagine reference that documentary as the reason they took up golf.
“Alexa Pano, who won our World Championship five times and who recently turned pro and teed off in Pinehurst at the U.S. Women’s Open this past June, she is as big a star among the kids as anyone in the game. She’s the Tiger Woods of U.S. Kids Golf. When she was 12 and playing in her last World Championship, she was mobbed everywhere she went, all because of that documentary.”
Most of the U.S. Curtis Cup team played U.S. Kids Golf. Amari Avery, who went 4-1-0 and was considered the player of the match, was also featured in “The Short Game.”
But a giant junior tournament in Pinehurst only affects local golf operators when you look at how the kids qualify to get there. Local U.S. Kids chapters host events throughout the year. Winners of those local tournaments are invited to regional championships. Win those, or a couple of “invitationals”, and you punch your ticket to Pinehurst.
“All three areas (the equipment, the coaching and the tournaments) work in sync,” Kim said. “Get a kid a club, and he wants to play. Once he plays, he wants to get better, so he signs up for a class. Once he gets a little better, then he signs up for tournaments. They want to get better, so they buy more clubs and sign up for more classes and go to bigger and better tournaments.”
Perhaps the biggest and most important advancement the company brought to the industry was something it calls the Longleaf Tee System. When Van Horn created tournaments, he realized that there was no guide for how to set up a golf course for young kids. Some holes were 40 yards, others were 400, but they were all guesses.
Once again, Van Horn used his engineering background to design a system based on how far a person of any age flies a driver. Longleaf Tee System system then tells that person the tee he or she should be playing.
To put his idea to the test, U.S. Kids Golf bought Longleaf Golf and Country Club in Southern Pines and, with the help of architect Bill Bergin, set up multiple teeing areas. They aren’t just forward tees set up as an afterthought. The shortest layout provides similar strategic challenges as the backs. As a result, an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old might play the same tees, but they are faced with the same kind of course as the 20-year-old elite amateur who stretches the track as long as it will go.
“It’s just scaling a golf course based on how long someone hits a drive,” Kim said.
Not only does Longleaf open more opportunities for family golf, it also speeds up play. By taking the “forward tee” stigma out of the equation (there’s always one more tee ahead), you are more likely to get players moving up, playing faster, and having more fun.
Speed of play might be the biggest asset U.S. Kids Golf has brought to the average club, but it isn’t the only profit center. All the products provide revenue potential. Coaching, while discounted for young tykes, still costs, as do the local tournaments. But the biggest cash generator is the clubs.
“Kids grow,” Kim said. “We use high-quality materials, so we’re not at the lowest price point. We wouldn’t do that to our consumers. We always want to provide a value. But we also want to grow the game and we are conscious of the cost side of that coin.”
More than anything, the combination of products, tournaments, proper tees and good instruction have given operators a one-stop shop for promoting family golf.
“Every conversation that I’ve ever been in at U.S. Kids Golf has been about serving the needs of families first,” Kim said. “Everything else is second. We could have grown much larger much quicker. But every time a proposal has been brought to Dan to increase prices and grow margins, the answer has always been, that’s not what’s best for the families. It’s families first. Always has been.”