Golf's homeland laments its decline

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.

“It’s 100 percent better than it used to be,” said Paul Gibson, a coach for the Scottish youth team. “The sections for the national team, which used to be dubious, now are based on solid results.”

The changes continue beyond high school. Amazing as it sounds, junior golfers attending the academically prestigious University of St. Andrews used to receive few opportunities to receive top-flight training or compete in the top-level amateur competition. St. Andrews is considered the game’s birthplace, home to its Royal & Ancient Golf Club, and boasts seven public courses, including the famed Old Course which will once again host the British Open in 2010. Students did long benefit from low green fees — it costs them less than $250 a year for unlimited access to the seven St. Andrews courses, about the regular price of a single green fees on the Old Course. “Initiation” courses to the game also are subsidized. But the university only recently began investing in “performance sport” facilities and scholarships (called bursaries here) for more serious players.

“We used to turn our back on elite sports, including golf,” acknowledged Ian Gaunt, the university’s assistant sport director. “But now we are building new facilities for training and taking this more seriously.”

Initial results are promising. Although Scotland’s professionals continue to lag, the nation’s amateurs are improving: The Scottish team took the World Amateur Championship in Australia in 2008. Gavin Dear, 25, followed up by capturing last year’s Dixie Amateur, one of the most prestigious annual events and turned professional in September.

But much hard work remains ahead. Young Scots competing in the Under 18 championship here say they need to spend more time at American universities where they can play all year round. And while the Swedish junior team manages to spend a good chunk of the winter practicing in Spain and Southern Europe, the Scottish Golf Union lacks the finances to provide the same for its own junior team. “Here it rains, it sleets, it even snows,” complained Paul Shields, a member of the Under 18 squad.

Despite these disadvantages, Scottish golf officials believe that the emergence of a new Scottish professional star could lead to a real, lasting renaissance, a little like Tiger Woods has encouraged a generation of young Americans to the fairways. Scotland now has constructed the basics of a strong youth training program, Scottish Golf Union officials say. It never will become Florida or Texas. But, as Miller says, “you have to putt with the putter you have.”