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Golf's homeland laments its decline

For Scotland, the ascendancy of Scandinavian golfers was a wake-up call.

Scotland's Martin Laird watches his approach shot to the 18th green during the second round of the Scottish Open golf tournament at Loch Lomond near Glasgow, Scotland July 10, 2009. Laird is currently the highest-ranked Scottish golfer, at 106. (David Moir/Reuters)

LADYBANK, Scotland — For Bill Miller, the Scottish Golf Union’s Director of Youth Development, it was understandable that the Spaniards would challenge his nation’s golf supremacy. But when golfers from Denmark and Sweden began walloping Scotland’s national team, he knew something had to change.

“It’s one thing for warm-weather countries to give us a run for the money,” he said, sitting at the scoring tent at the Scottish National Under 18 championship being held at this picturesque Scottish village’s windswept course. “It’s another thing when the Scandinavians start showing us up.”

Scotland, the home of golf, is struggling to regain its luster as breeding ground of top-flight golfers. Scots codified the game some five centuries ago and they continued to dominate it through the 19th century. But a Scot has not won the British Open since Sandy Lyle's victory in 1985.

Today, the highest-ranking Scottish pro Martin Laird ranks a lowly 106 in world golf rankings. In contrast, five Swedes stand in the top 100 including PGA Tour pros such as Henrik Stenson and Robert Karlsson. Among women, recently retired LPGA superstar Annika Sorenstam leaves several other top-ranked Swedish women golfers.

What went wrong? Scots continue to love and practice the game, with 290,000 registered golfers out of a population of just over 5 million. Even villages as small as Ladybank, with only 1,487 souls, boast championship level courses and fees for club membership at only several hundred pounds a year. It is common to see youngsters, out from school, carrying a bag of clubs on their back and heading to the course for afternoon practice.

But Miller and other Scottish Golf Union officials acknowledge that training for elite golfers long was neglected. Promising young golfers received little financial or practical support.

In contrast, the Swedish golf federation requires 20 percent of club members to be younger than 18 years old and almost all clubs offer free lessons to talented young golfers. Each year, from May to September, Sweden holds dozens of youth tournaments that attract 10,000 golfers from ages 13 to 17. The best 144 meet at the end of the season in the Skandia Cup final. Entry fees for the Swedish tournaments are minimal — equivalent to about $50 at today's depressed dollar rates. In addition, Sweden’s golf federation covers the travel expenses for all contestants in the elite tournaments.

After watching the strong Swedish results, the Scots have begun to respond. Over the past decade, Scotland has doubled the budget for training promising young golfers and set up elite training centers. Like the Swedes, the Scots now take their top 40 prospects in each age group and offer them intensive physical and psychological training. These prospects compete, Swedish style, in a series of youth tournaments throughout the year.