European Tour star Robert Rock runs a junior programme, which means coming face to face with golf's biggest problems – namely dress codes and short-sighted clubs
Ask Robert Rock who he’s inspired by and he’ll tell you that it’s the likes of Paul Lawrie and Stephen Gallacher, two of the leading lights in putting plenty back into the game. Rock has famously come through the PGA pro ranks and he gets the responsibility to pass things on. Hence why he set up the Robert Rock Junior Golf Tour around the Midlands three years ago.
What made you set up the tour?
There are loads of competitions for juniors but what I wanted to do was also create something for kids of a young age who aren’t really club golfers. We’ve got kids who are five, six and seven who don’t have a handicap and, after they’ve been a few times, they’ll be promoted to play in a nine-hole version off the red tees where we give them an estimated handicap.
Then there’s an 18-hole event for all juniors with handicaps of 28 and under for boys and 36 and under for girls and the boys play in under 18 and under-14 categories.
Social media and word of mouth drives it. Natalie Clarke runs it all and she’s brilliant and, because of her, she helps to get a lot of young girls playing too.
What sort of yardages do they play?
A par 3 is between 80-100 yards, the par 4s are between 150-190 yards and the par 5s 200-295 yards. It all depends on slopes and inclines and the aim of the mini tour is to set them off on this and then to hopefully move them up into the 9-hole handicap event, which is from 54 handicap, and will be for under-10s, 8s and 6s for boys and girls.
How do you stop a seven-year-old from getting frustrated?
People start them at driving ranges and they’re little, they can’t hit it far and so they soon get bored. Then they go out and it’s pointless as they can’t make the carries and they are then expected to persist with it to get a handicap which is ridiculous.
One junior we have just got so frustrated. He was good at everything but he made seven on every hole as he just couldn’t hit it far enough. He just wanted to get pars so we set these events up where we just start them miles down the hole where it’s easier and more fun. Then we’ll wait for them to say they’re bored of that and then we move them back towards the red tees.
The US kids do it the best, they have staggered tees for almost every age or size of player.
What do you generally make of the teeing options we have in the UK?
The reds and yellows are pretty close together and it’s just unrealistic. I don’t know why clubs are so reluctant to put a tee marker halfway down the fairway.
I wasn’t allowed onto the course until I was 11 or 12. I started off playing a nine-hole course around a power station with loads of par 3s and that probably got my interest. I played for a year there and thought I was alright and then played a proper course and got a handicap of 27 so I actually wasn’t as good as I thought!
How good are clubs at letting you on for a discounted price?
You see these clubs on social media saying they support junior golf and then you call them up and ask for some tee times when they’re quiet and say it will be a fiver a person and they say that it’s not really for them.
Then there are places where you maybe wouldn’t have expected them to be really welcoming and they’ve been amazing. Hillside want us to come next year, other places say it will be £35 per person when we’re charging them £9 to enter so it can be a battle.
Little Aston are giving us the course for free for our finals this year so it costs everyone nothing. They’ve got a great new manager and they just want some kids coming down, it’s just thinking about things the right way. We’ll have a rolling putting comp around their putting green all day. I still remember going there for the first time and thinking it was awesome.
The lack of help is all quite short-sighted, isn’t it?
Some kids might want to join one day. As long as the demand’s there and we can get nearly 100 kids there we’ll keep doing them. You might get a hundred families who will be there and they can’t see beyond the green fee. It’s worthwhile to take the hit on the green fee and see what they take on the day and the course is empty anyway.
But we’ve got enough places who have been good to us and we’ll stick with them.
What’s your opinion on dress codes for your juniors?
I don’t care. Generally they turn up in something nice, nobody has turned up in jeans but that would be fine, they wear golf shoes or trainers and they look the same these days so that makes no difference and I don’t care if they play in a polo shirt or a T-shirt.
Sometimes they come in smartish looking tracksuit bottoms and that’s great. No clubs have said anything about how they’ve been dressed.
Do you ever get any pushy parents?
That can occasionally be a nightmare as we have to let them go round with the really young kids and carry the clubs and do the scoring and there can be some, let’s say, creative scoring.
What’s your general outlook into when to start coaching them?
It’s really about keeping them enthusiastic and just going playing. A competition is where you start to concentrate on the score and that stops them four and five putting. I used to do some junior coaching at my range and they just got bored after a while so we get them on the course and give them something to play for. When you compare them to their mates then they get quite into it.
I’m a big believer in playing a lot. Growing up all of us who played a lot and kept playing made it some form of pro standard, it just seems to happen.
How responsible do you feel to do all this?
It’s part of your job as a golf pro to do it. I’m inspired by people like Paul Lawrie and Stevie Gallacher, the amount of work they do is incredible and I’d feel that I wasn’t doing a proper job if I didn’t attempt to do something similar.
Paul is helped a bit by being a major champion but the effort he’s put in is phenomenal and Gallacher has followed suit. Lawrie is your model golf pro as far as I can see, he does what he can and more – some do what suits them and what makes them look good for a week or two here and there.
Maybe it’s part of being a PGA pro, someone took you on at some point and you became an assistant. When you become qualified you feel a duty to pass things on. I’ve done it with Liam James who now coaches with me on tour and we need to keep that system going to have great pros. It’s a brilliant system but it’s all by accident.
Who are the juniors’ heroes?
Quite a lot like Matt Wallace and Rickie Fowler is a big one. At the Open I asked Rickie to sign a hat as a prize which he did and the next day he left his whole wardrobe and other bits in my locker which was incredible and really cool of him.
The kids love things like hats more than actual prizes. I started off giving bags and clubs and then the last time we gave out some Fowler hats and they loved it. You could spend a few hundred quid at an American Golf but these prizes are special and they seem to love it.
Visit the Robert Rock Junior Tour website for more information.