When France held its international junior boys' tournament over Easter weekend, the 120 players from around Europe who qualified each paid about $14 to enter the five-day event. Players teeing off in this week's U.S. Junior and U.S. Girls' Junior Amateurs at Trump Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J., will pay only $25 in entry fees, but that represents a fraction of the true cost of making it into the event.
Compared with young Americans, European teenagers face no financial strain as they shoot for golfing stardom. National federations pick up most travel expenses and provide free coaching. Meanwhile, entry into most topflight American junior golf tournaments is $250 a pop, and some American parents spend upwards of $30,000 on travel and lodging for the 10- to 12-week summer golf season. Many of those domestic juniors perfect their skills by attending expensive full-time golf academies.
There's also a divergence in approach. In Europe the game is promoted as a family sport, and parents put minimal pressure on young players. The model is the Swedish golf federation, which requires that a fifth of all club members be under 21. Young players are encouraged to join on their own if their parents aren't interested. Few restrictions are imposed on junior tee times, and clubs offer free lessons to talented youngsters.
Not all European golf federations share Sweden's antielitist, forward-looking practices, but the successful ones do. In the Netherlands the federation opened its ranks to nonclub members two decades ago. The number of registered Dutch golfers has soared from 38,000 in 1988 to 301,000 in 2007, and several Dutch golfers are performing well on the European tour. In France it's possible to buy a federation license (needed to play in top tournaments) over the Internet for about $14. As a result, the number of French golfers jumped from 180,000 to more than 300,000 in 12 years. By contrast, golf participation in the U.S. has plateaued.
Dave Peterson, a Houston investment adviser and parent of a top-ranked junior, recalls "blowing $5,000" on one event because the only hotel available cost $400 a night. "You have to be a multimillionaire to play this sport," Peterson says. Well, as they say, only in America.
William Echikson's Shooting for Tiger: How Golf's Obsessed New Generation Is Transforming a Country Club Sport was published in May.