When Mike Whan was still the LPGA Tour commissioner, he was talking to a Pac-12 women’s golf coach at a tournament.
The coach asked him: “Why does America make it so hard to recruit an American?”
“What are you talking about?” Whan asked her.
The coach explained to Whan that if she wanted to recruit a good Swedish player, she would fly to Scottsdale, Arizona, where Team Sweden had a house where about 15 of the country’s elite 14-year-old players lived and trained.
“In America, I don’t have anybody who can tell me who the top 14-year-olds are and how to get ahold of them,” the coach said. “Why doesn’t America make it as easy as Spain or Korea or Australia?”
Whan, now the CEO of the United States Golf Association, hopes to do something about it. On Friday, the USGA launched the U.S. National Development Program, which will be the country’s first unified pathway to develop the best junior golfers.
“If you look at every other sport in America, almost each one has a unified elite junior development program or a national team program, except for golf,” Whan told ESPN. “We’re the only country in the world that doesn’t do this for our youth, and we’re only the sport in America that doesn’t do it. It hit me that the only significant golf country in the world that doesn’t have a unified national program is America. They had one in Japan. They have one in Canada and Mexico.”
The USGA has pledged to “identify, train, develop, fund and support” the country’s most promising players, who will compete on one of three national teams with staff and resources. The USGA said there will also be an “intentional commitment to reach players from underrepresented communities and ensure they have the resources to progress within the sport’s strongest competitive and developmental opportunities.”
During his 12 years as LPGA commissioner, Whan said he was struck that many of the tour’s best international players had been developed on national teams.
“One of the things that just stunned me after a couple of years was realizing that every woman on that tour came out of a country program except the Americans,” Whan said. “I talked to Carlota Ciganda about Team Spain. I talked to Lydia Ko about Team New Zealand. It was amazing that when Lydia was 11 years old she was part of Team New Zealand. They taught you nutrition, coaching, stretching, how to get into a Division I school and how to work with a caddie. These kids were prepared to win at a really young age. If they didn’t come from a well-to-do background, these country programs were taking care of them and getting them to the next level.”
The U.S. National Development Program will create a grant program to financially assist junior players with entry fees, travel, coaching costs, golf course fees and equipment. The program will fund 50 juniors in 2023. The USGA hopes the number of participants will grow to 1,000 juniors by 2027.
The USGA is partnering with the American Junior Golf Association to use existing AJGA events as a pathway for juniors to progress from state-level competition to USGA championships, and it will work with the PGA of America and LPGA Professionals to support the juniors through coaching and player development.
The USGA hopes to launch a junior national team in 2024, amateur national team and regional championships the next year and a young professional team and regional camps in 2026.
Whan hopes the program will close the gap for junior golfers in America. Only five of the top 25 players and 12 of the top 50 players in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings are Americans; 23 of the top 50 men in the Official World Golf Ranking are from the U.S.
“The numbers reflect it, both in the men’s and women’s game,” Whan said. “If you look 20 years ago at the top 100 players in the world, in both men and women, the slide is quite dramatic. I think it is because our youth are at a competitive disadvantage.”