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Development Golf - Can't we do more?

One of the frustrations for the sport of golf in South Africa has been the sluggish and sporadic progress that has been made in terms of expanding the game to poorer and previously-disadvantaged sectors of the population.

It hasn't been through a lack of trying, and, compared with other sports, I'd argue that golf was one of the more enthusiastic early adopters in the post-Apartheid era. Golf Development, as it's widely become known, has been around since I first learned the game 25 years ago, and there are countless programmes taking place under this umbrella. First-hand experience also shines a light on the great work being done by the likes of the Nomads and the various Golf Unions, who raise huge quantities of money for such causes. Whether it's within Foundation Golf and Driving Ranges, or higher-up programmes such as the Gary Player Class of 2017, it would seem that many other people are doing their bit too.

However, at least in the professional game, sustained results have been elusive. That's not to say there aren't success stories, not to mention players of exceptional talent coming through the ranks. But it's probably fair to say that, at various levels, the scales of representation haven't exactly tipped.

So, what more can be done?

Perhaps the missing link in terms of involvement in grassroots development - generally speaking - has been at club level. Clubs face enormous difficulties, and, in the current climate, are fighting for a piece of an ever-diminishing pie. Resources for philanthropic purposes, as a result, are scarce.

Yet despite such headwinds, one Cape Town-based club is proactively taking the lead. Nearly three years ago, King David Mowbray Golf Club began a programme in conjunction with local underprivileged schools whereby a bus would come and pick them up on a Friday afternoon and take them to the club. Upon arrival, they would receive food and drinks, followed by coaching from accredited PGA teachers, before being taught basics such as chipping, putting, rules and etiquette out on the course.

The whole exercise is paid for by the club, courtesy of donations from members, along with some funding from the Western Province Golf Union. The programme began with around 15 students of all creeds and colour, but has now grown considerably - not only in terms of numbers, but also what is offered.

"We've attracted kids from all over Cape Town, including areas such as Gugulethu, Philippi, Mitchells Plain, Observatory and others, and there are now around 70 boys and girls involved," explains Daphne Sole, who coordinates the programme. "Most are between the ages of nine and 14, but we have a couple of kids as young as six taking part.

"We feed them, provide them with all sorts of equipment like clubs, balls, bags, clothes etc, and also provide uniforms to the most enthusiastic pupils. We then teach them the fundamentals of the game - both on and off the course."

All participants get a chance to practice and play. But, in order to ensure they have solid foundations in place, they also spend a bit of time in the 'classroom' and benefit from a structured syllabus, with six different time slots from Thursday to Sunday.

Sole added: "We split the kids into different tiers, depending on how advanced they are. So in the first tier, we teach them all about the basic rules, etiquette, the various formats of play etc. For the tier-two kids, we go into a bit more detail around all of that, and also try and open their eyes to the wider golfing industry. Then with our tier threes we've started looking at giving them some shadowing experience of the greenkeepers, coaches, hospitality and catering staff, finance, caddies and the club pro.

"We always look to keep it fun though - we do quizzes with prizes, and there are lots of laughs along the way. But naturally they're always dying to get out onto the course!"

Things have expanded beyond just theory and practice sessions though. The club have entered four teams of these players into the local WP Junior School League, where they are able to showcase their skills against counterparts from all across the Peninsula. Added to that, those who have shown the required progress also face-off against each other for nine holes in a weekly 'Ryder Cup' at King David Mowbray.

"They're always put into either the USA or European team each week - we draw their names from a hat or they choose captains. We play different formats like betterball, greensomes and singles. We allocate points for a win or halved game, and do a prize giving at the end of the term. They're so competitive, and it's wonderful to watch!

"One of our kids, Chumani Mgodeli, plays off a 12, and he's only 12 years old. His brother Mbaliyethu is only seven, and you can already tell he's probably going to beat them all in a few years! But what we love most is seeing the smiles on their faces, and the camaraderie. After all, it's fair to say that we're exposing them to opportunities they otherwise probably wouldn't have had," Sole concluded.

As ever, the biggest challenge of all is funding. Despite the contributions from the Union and a handful of others - including a donation from the Cape Town International Jazz Festival - many of the costs of keeping such a unique programme going are reliant upon generosity from the members. Surely, even at a time when the purse strings are tightening with regards to corporate sponsorship, companies are missing a trick though?

"There are obviously other programmes like ours out there, but few, if any, which are pioneered by clubs themselves," Sole points out. "When you're involved with something like this, it just gives you an idea of how much more can be done. Our long-term aim would be to open an academy, and perhaps even incorporate education and schooling into what we offer. But these kinds of ventures obviously need large amounts of capital, and it isn't easy getting outside sponsorship these days."

For all the current economic struggles of the country, never has an opportunity seemed more glaring for potential stakeholders. Golf struggles to shed the stigma as being an elitist sport, and is barely accessible to the middle class, let alone the impoverished. Yet even during the Apartheid years, the spirit of golf has been entrenched in poorer communities. Have a conversation with a local caddie one day to see what I mean. Think back, too, to the likes of Papwa Sewgolum, and the massive following he used to command. The interest and enthusiasm is very much there, and always has been.

For clubs, expanding the game into poorer communities isn't just a moral imperative or a PR exercise either. Growing the game is essential to their long-term survival. Rather than fighting for the dimes from an ever-diminishing colonial elite, unlocking talent (or even just willing and enthusiastic players) from previously-disadvantaged communities is an investment that will almost certainly bear fruit in the future.

As for corporates, well, perhaps fewer deals are being done on the golf course these days, and instead on the mountain bike. But exposing kids from a segregated, underprivileged world to something new won't only unearth good golfers. A vast array of talents lie within, and getting these youngsters involved with people they would never have otherwise met, networking, and learning the life lessons that only golf can teach, is surely the key to making these young boys and girls the engine which drives our future economy, rather than being excluded by it.

Plenty is already being done within development golf, and no one should undermine the efforts of those who do so much. But it seems as though so much more can be accomplished as well - whether it's by contributing time or money. Provided the causes are well structured, the yield of such investments will transcend far beyond simply growing the game too.

So surely, if uplifting communities, eliminating social divisions and boosting the economy resonates with you or your interests, the time to get involved - in whatever capacity - is now?

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