Unleash Your Drive: The charity helping children improve their wellbeing through golf
This morning the world’s best male golfers will tee off for the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, the first time the tournament has been held across the Irish Sea since 1951.
But, as the golfing world waits to see whether Tiger Woods can claim another major, or Rory McIlroy can end his drought at the club where he holds the course record (a 61 at just 16), golf is undergoing something of an existential crisis. Much like the decline in the playing of cricket, according to National Club Golfer the number of regular players fell by 27 per cent between 2007 and 2016. Several courses closed in 2018.
The statistics are worrying for fans of the sport, and key to securing its future is engaging children in what some see as an old white man’s pastime. There are ample threats, chief among them addictive video games like Fortnite, short attention spans (an average round lasts up to four hours) and often prohibitive costs.
But there’s one charity looking to change the way golf is perceived, bring it into the 21st century and inspire children of all backgrounds to fall in love with the game. This has been the credo of the Golf Foundation, set up in 1952 by three-time Open champion Sir Henry Cotton, since its inception. It receives financial backing from the R&A, one of golf’s governing body.
The charity has a large number of initiatives. Tri-Golf, for example, is a bit like a golfing Kwik Cricket. With light, plastic clubs and adaptable equipment, it allows primary schools to introduce golf, a notoriously land-heavy sport. Street Golf helps take adapted versions of the game to sport centres, parks and schools from the inner-city to small country villages. “We reach half a million youngsters a year through our programmes,” says CEO Brendon Pyle.
The latest scheme, however, is concerned with more than just the introduction of golf – it takes into account mental welbeing and personal development, too. At a time when children are experiencing unprecedented challenges (one study shows a six-fold rise of mental health problems since the advent of social media), Unleash Your Drive is looking to harvest golf’s unique characteristics to boost confidence, commitment, control and more.
Early signs show it’s working. A pilot scheme, held in four golf clubs around the country, has established a 20 per cent increase in ‘mental toughness’ in just 10 weeks. Using a system developed by Professor Peter Clough of the University of Huddersfield which involves a series of personal questions, alongside expert golf coaching, Pyle is excited by its potential.
One of the trial’s star participants is Chelsey Duffy, 13. Over a few holes of golf at Frinton Golf Club in Essex, she explains how thoroughly golf has impacted her life. The club’s pro and founder of the Coastal Golf Academy, Tom Hide, has long dedicated himself to bringing golf to the community and works closely with the Golf Foundation. Four years ago he introduced the game to a local primary school.
Chelsey was one of the kids there that day, and takes up the story: “We went down with the school, and it was a challenge, I’ve loved the game ever since. It was more of a challenge than other sports I’d played.” Hooked, Chelsey and her father, who worked long hours and wasn’t a golfer, were soon playing regularly, and her handicap quickly tumbled.
“She was a child that wasn’t really into sport,” says mum Kelly. “Since she’s started with the school, moving forward to what she’s like now, she’s a totally different child. She was shy, but is very confident at school now – perhaps a little too much. For us it’s the golf, and everything that comes with it. She feels at home here, and accepted by the club.”
Unleash Your Drive has been credited with assisting one child deal with his father dying of cancer; another explains how it helped him deal with exam pressure. But what about golf generally, and the Golf Foundation’s programme specifically, are ideal for boosting wellbeing and mental toughness?
“If I’m honest, I think most sports are good for young people,” says Hide. “I guess golf is so varied. One minute you hit the perfect shot, but it takes an awkward bounce, you can feel hard done by. The next minute it might go the opposite way.” A bit like life in general, golf never goes according to plan, and requires healthy doses of determination, focus, flexibility and single-mindedness.
“I think golf lends itself particularly well to teaching life skills, because of the focus on values like honesty and respect,” says Pyle of a game that is largely self-refereed. “A lot of golfers believe that being involved in the game helped them with their wider lives.”
Chelsey explains how it has helped her improve at school. “My work with the Golf Foundation has given me skills to complete difficult maths questions. I take them bit by bit. I do a shot, say if it was a drive, I take the biggest bit first and then work with it.” In essence, golf’s stress on focusing on one moment at a time can help compartmentalise tough situations into manageable mini challenges.
One of the first exercises of the Unleash Your Drive programme was a confidence challenge. The participating juniors all stood together on the first tee (always intimidating, as any golfer knows) and volunteered to go first and hit certain shots, such as a draw. Another was giving speeches in the club. “I had to talk about the ladies’ Open as if I’d just won it. It was really difficult, everyone was laughing,” Chelsey recalls.
Winning the Women’s British Open would be the pinnacle for Chelsey, who dreams of becoming professional. Her heroes are Charley Hull, currently the 25th ranked woman in the world, Tiger Woods and Shane Lowry. With an incredibly calm demeanour, on course and off, and impressively consistent ball striking, it’s not hard to imagine those dreams one day becoming reality.
Golf is often viewed as stuffy and elitist, for “rich men in tight pants” as Hide likes to say. While there are pockets of exclusivity, in other areas pros like Hide, with help from the Golf Foundation, are bringing it to new audiences – those, like Chelsey, who wouldn’t have considered taking it up.
And Chelsey wants to encourage other girls – a tiny minority in most clubs; she’s the only female golfer at her school – to take part. She’s an ambassador for a scheme to get local girls playing, and every Tuesday helps Hide coach several girls aged five to 13 at the club.
Chelsey’s story shows the power of engaging children with sport. With schools cutting physical education time, and the fact that many school sporting facilities are shut off during holidays, often the onus is placed on charities. The initial success of Unleash Your Drive is soon to be tested on schools as well as golf clubs.
“We’re really excited to offer it to some of our golf projects in schools,” says Pyle. “We’re speaking to a group of schools in Yorkshire that are interested in mental toughness, resilience for younger people, and obviously a bit of golf as well. I think we’ve got a really strong opportunity.”
Every school reached presents the opportunity to find another Chelsey, someone who’ll fall in love with golf and reap the additional rewards it has to offer, such as mixing with several generations and boosting confidence to interact with adults.
“It’s such a lovely thing to be part of,” adds Kelly. “It really means more than she’s letting on, she really feels like she belongs.”