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Tigermania boosts interest in clubs for young golfers

December 22, 1997

ATLANTA (AP) _ Children going to bed this holiday season with visions of birdies and eagles dancing in their heads might wake up to find a set of lightweight, easy-to-grip clubs to help get them started.

The spectacular success of Tiger Woods has provided a boost to golf for children, and along with it, the interest in special clubs for a sport in which many young players have had to make do with cut-down adult clubs.

``There’s been tremendous gift-giving sales during the year,″ said Dan Van Horn, general manager of U.S. Kids Golf in the Atlanta suburb of Duluth, one of the new companies across the nation specializing in kids’ golf equipment. ``And it has been great for Christmas, when parents will spend a little more.″

``Tiger Woods has brought more publicity and acceptance to golf as a neat sport,″ said George Todd, who in July started FirstTour Junior Golf in Redmond, Wash., which grew out of his efforts to develop special clubs for his own three children. ``People are taking to the game in a very different way than when I was in high school. I don’t think it’s a fad. I really believe it’s here to stay.″

In the book ``Training a Tiger,″ Woods’ father Earl notes that parents who wouldn’t think of handing their beginning baseball player a 36-inch bat nevertheless have their children swinging adult-weight golf clubs. A custom shop helped supply Tiger with appropriately sized clubs as he grew up, Woods says, although household tape was used to adjust some of Tiger’s clubs.

The National Golf Foundation, an industry group, says the average age of a beginning U.S. golfer is 30. However, on the wave of Tigermania, golfers under age 18 represent the fastest-growing segment.

``Tiger’s brought them into the game and now we have to help them on from there,″ said Van Horn.

But rather than Woods’ success, it was his own son’s frustration that led Van Horn into the kid-club business. Van Horn, who has professional mini-tour experience, watched his son Ben, now 10, struggle when he tried golf a few years ago.

``He didn’t like it like I hoped he would. I didn’t push him,″ he recalled.

In 1995, while working with the Links Foundation, a Christian ministry affiliated with professional golfers, Van Horn met an Odessa, Texas, golf course manager named Doyle Weatherby who had begun developing lighter clubs after watching frustrated beginners.

Weatherby’s idea made sense to Van Horn, who immediately thought: ``That’s why my son didn’t like it ... It felt like swinging a sledgehammer for kids, instead of being fun.″

Van Horn acquired Weatherby’s startup company and set up U.S. Kids Golf near here. An engineering graduate of the University of Arkansas, Van Horn developed a ``red-blue-green″ series of clubs to fit children of different ages and physical size.

Since introducing its first line last January, the company has had sales or orders for nearly 90,000 clubs.

And also, his son Ben has gained enthusiasm for golf.

``They helped him instantly,″ Van Horn said. ``He had to undo the bad habits he had started, when he had to pick up the club real abruptly to compensate for the weight and developed a chopping motion.″

Van Horn’s 6-year-old son David, meanwhile, began with kids’ clubs and quickly developed a fluid, fully extended swing, he said.

Van Horn, whose clubs are endorsed by PGA Tour player and father-of-three Bobby Clampett, emphasized that the main goal shouldn’t be to develop the next Tiger Woods, but to enable children to start at an early age a sport they can enjoy throughout their lives.

To keep parents from busting their budgets on a beginning set for a child who may not like the game anyway, Van Horn sells only a driver, 7-iron, wedge and putter, ranging in price from $24.95 to $37.95 each.

Todd, whose FirstTour will expand from the U.S. Northwest to nationwide next month, has set up FirstTour Charities to allow tax-deductible donations of outgrown clubs for children who couldn’t normally afford his set of premium clubs that cost up to $60 each.

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