Five bucks doesn’t go very far in golf these days. It’ll cover one tour-quality golf ball, or maybe a bag of tees, or a bucket of range balls at some facilities but not all.
Youth on Course is helping kids stretch their money a lot further – 18 holes further. The California-based non-profit with the deep pockets makes it possible for young golfers in 27 states to play a round of golf for $5.
Founded in 2006 by the Northern California Golf Association, Youth on Golf subsidizes green fees for its members, who are ages 6 to 18, allowing them to play participating courses during designated time blocks for the discount rate of $5. The organization picks up the rest of a negotiated price, which averages around $12. Since its inception, the organization has spent more than $5.1 million on green fee subsidies.
Youth on Course has taken off since branching out of California in 2014 and ‘15, and now offers programs in cooperation with other state and regional golf associations. Roughly 47,000 kids were registered as members in 2018, up from about 30,000 in 2017, and the group has subsidized more than 750,000 rounds.
The organization plans to expand to all 50 states and internationally with opportunities that include blossoming caddie programs, high school internships and college scholarships. The organization hopes to reach more than 100,000 young members by the end of 2021.
The roughly 1,000 participating courses vary from local munis to highly ranked facilities such as Poppy Hills (home to Youth on Course) in Pebble Beach, Calif., Cog Hill near Chicago and Chambers Bay in University Place, Wash.
Following are excerpts from a conversation at last week’s PGA Merchandise Show with Youth on Course CEO Adam Heieck , who has been with the organization since its start:
Golfweek: How did all this start?
Adam Heieck (at left): It really is designed to eliminate a barrier to entry to the game. Started by the Northern California Golf Association, back then, we didn’t have any juniors. There was nobody in the pipeline. If you don’t have them, everybody in the game is in trouble, obviously. The basic premise is, kids never pay more than $5 for a round of golf. We’re subsidizing revenue back to the courses, on average $7. We work with the courses, and they determine the availability.
We go to a regular daily-fee course where it’s $75 for an adult on a Saturday, and the junior rate is $20. We’ll say that $20 is a little high. If you want a kid playing a lot, for moms and dads who are interested in helping their kids get involved in golf, that price is a little high. So we say, “Will you take it down to $15? If the times are late in the day, your golf course is empty.” And they say sure, we’ll do that.
GW: So the courses establish the times kids can play?
AH: For some courses, it’s every day, anytime. For others, its after 4 in the afternoon, Monday through Thursday. It runs the gamut. Then we subsidize the agreed-upon rate, whatever it gets down to. If the rate is $15, we pay $10, and the kid never pays more than $5.
GW: Where does your funding come from?
AH: It’s all private contributions. It’s fundraising: individuals, foundations, corporations. The Monterrey Peninsula Foundation, for one. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is a big contributor, just south of $200,000 a year. And the NCGA is still funding this to a great degree from an overhead standpoint. Our offices are at Poppy Hills, and we have a team of 10, and the NCGA underwrites $700,000 worth of expenses. Then we get out and raise the other $2 million to $2.5 million. The NCGA has been very generous, really selfless, in helping this grow.
It is now kind of its own operational entity, with its own board and its own staff. And when we go out to a new region, we’ll cover that region for two years.
Say we go into the Carolinas, partner with the Carolinas Golf Association, so a kid in Durham (N.C.) can join the Carolina Golf Association, so they’re happy – mom and dad are going to pay maybe $15 for that, and it comes with their GHIN number (for the U.S. Golf Association handicap system). Then they can take their Youth on Course membership card and go play roughly 1,000 courses nationwide for five bucks.
GW: Where were you 30 years ago when I was a junior?
AH: I know, it would have been great. It’s such a simple concept. This has opened the doors for so many people who care about kids and who are interested in golf, and there are a lot of these kinds of people who care.
We got an email about a year ago, two years ago maybe, from a mother in San Francisco who said, “Going to dinner and a movie in the city is well north of $100, and we can’t do that as a family. But I can sign up for Youth on Course, my son and my daughter pay five bucks, and my husband and I can pay a twilight rate. So for $50 or $60, we just spent hours with our kids.”
It changes family dynamics, kind of eliminates that intimidation that, “I will never be able to afford to play golf the way I want to play golf.”
GW: How many rounds do the kids play?
AH: In 2018, we subsidized just under 150,000 rounds. … There are kids who play north of 150 rounds a year, 200 rounds a year using this. There’s not a better value in all of youth sports, and it’s resonating.
GW: In all the industry meetings at the PGA Show, two perceived problems always come up: Golf costs too much, and there aren’t enough kids playing. Was eliminating those two barriers the goal from the beginning?
AH: Well, the focus really was, what can we do to impact young people. … It later became, through the industry, that it does those two things you mentioned. We’re excited about helping young people, and the more people hear about it, the more they get excited about it.
We’re trying to show state golf associations that you need to be paying attention to youth, and not just competitive youth. You need recreational golfers, not just kids who compete in tournaments. The AJGA and (that competition-based organization’s executive director) Steve Hamblin have done an amazing job, but those kids start somewhere. You have to develop the pipeline. That’s what we’re trying to help these guys (at the state associations) to understand, and it’s going well so far.
GW: What type of feedback do you receive from the courses?
AH: It’s interesting. Initially, the pitch was that this is good for the growth of the game. It very quickly developed into explaining that this is a very good business model for (courses). Roughly 50 percent of our rounds are played with an adult, so that’s mom and dad coming and paying a twilight rate, buying a Gatorade and a hot dog or whatever.
So, the PGA pros are looking at it and seeing, now these people are coming and filling all my unused tee times. No, it’s not all at $75 green fees, but it’s at $10 or $15 for the kid, plus the twilight rate for the parents, plus food and beverage, and on top of that they’re developing a long-term customer base. PGA sections love this – why wouldn’t you?
GW: Are there any parallels with you and The First Tee and other groups?
GW: We partner with First Tee, actually. … People know that First Tee is great, getting clubs into kids’ hands and getting them instruction, the Core Values, it’s awesome. Now we have to get them to go play. Youth on Course can step in and provide that access after their First Tee program ends. We work with First Tees all over the country. Roughly 25 percent of the total 47,000 Youth on Courses kids are also First Tee kids. And we’re having increased dialogue with their senior officials to make sure that pipeline stays intact. It’s an important pipeline, very important.
GW: Is the PGA of America helping you push the program?
AH: The agreements we have are with state and regional associations, but we’re always making sure we’re in contact with the PGA sections and that they’re aware of this and supporting this, because this is a good business decision for them. I think everyone feels good about helping kids, anyway. It’s about, let us deliver a new customer base for you and help us develop it. The courses win, we win, the kids win.
GW: How does a player take advantage of this?
AH: You can go to our website (youthoncourse.org) to see a full list of courses, their availability, the times available.
GW: How much is it to join Youth on Course?
AH: It varies by region, because you get a joint membership with your state or regional association. So if you’re in Philadelphia, you get to join the Golf Association of Philadelphia, and it’s $10. If you’re in Northern Cal, it’s $18. Oregon is $30. The low price to join is in Michigan, at $5. So anywhere, it’s a pretty nominal rate. And if you play just a couple times, it’s well worth it because of the $5 green fee. Gwk