Way too often over the years have we heard claims of golf clubs being an unwelcoming environment for juniors. “Don’t do this, don’t do that. Don’t go here, don’t go there,” has often been how youngsters have portrayed the tone of how they were made to feel walking into a club for the first time. If so, no wonder so many clubs these days are struggling to muster a healthy junior section.
There are exceptions, of course, and one club that has certainly proved a shining example of how juniors should be treated in this day and age, both in terms of what the kids themselves are getting from the experience and also how the club itself can benefit from being junior friendly, is Craigielaw in East Lothian.
Just ask Grant Forrest, one of the four Scottish newcomers on the 2019 European Tour, which tees off in Hong Kong this week. He cut his golfing teeth at Bathgate, where he was introduced to the game by his father, Graeme, at a time when Stephen Gallacher was beginning to make his mark in the pro ranks, but it was at Craigielaw where Forrest spent the bulk of his formative years in the sport and the 25-year-old is still attached to the club.
“When I first joined Craigielaw, it was quite revolutionary what they were doing,” recalled Forrest, speaking before he joined his three fellow Challenge Tour graduates, Liam Johnston, Bob MacIntyre and David Law, in heading off to start an exciting new chapter in their careers. “Everyone was treated just as a member. At Craigielaw, it’s not a case of people being either a junior, male or female member. The medals are open to anyone.
“Coming from Bathgate, where it was still quite traditional, it was a bit of an eye-opener how well the juniors were treated and how open the club was to everyone. I think that was a big thing for me at the time.”
It was an environment that helped Forrest flourish, winning three national titles, including the Scottish Amateur Championship at Royal Dornoch in 2012, and also playing on a winning Walker Cup team at Royal Lytham in 2015. And he wasn’t alone in showing that Craigielaw’s concept worked. Gabrielle Macdonald, who was a junior at the same time, rose through the ranks to win the Scottish Women’s Championship in 2014 and has also been a runner-up twice in that event. She is currently preparing for the final of the Ladies European Tour Qualifying School in Morocco next month.
“It was really the Weymss and March Estates as they built the facility,” said Gordon Smith, the club captain and someone who was involved in the junior section from the start after Craigielaw opened for play in 2001, in handing out praise. “Their foresight was that it was a facility to be used by the people of East Lothian and the first thing in their charter was that everyone was to be treated as an equal.
“Through that, our medal concept whereby juniors play with adults was developed. At some other clubs, any adult can play in a medal but a junior has to play off nine or less. Really, what’s the difference between an adult, say off 13, or a junior off 13?”
Along with many others at the club, Smith saw from the moment he became a member that Forrest had the talent to carve out a career in the game. Equally, though, he reckons that being part of a group of players that did indeed feel welcome played its part in his development over the years.
“We had exceptional laddies and lassies at the time Grant was a junior,” he added. “It was all for one and one for all. They were like bees. If one went, everybody went. They all wanted to play as often as they could and they all mixed with us. On a Saturday, we’d have a mixed sweep and they all felt part of it. They were good kids who developed good habits quickly. They were great to be with. They helped keep us young. We never had any bother with any of them. They were a pleasure to be around.”
Forrest talked last week about Gallacher being the “poster boy” of Bathgate when he was cutting his teeth there. Now Forrest is the European Tour player Craigielaw are hoping can inspire the next generation. “As a friend, I’m really proud of what Grant has done and it is also huge for the club,” admitted Smith. “Hopefully we can use Grant to encourage youngsters into the game and let them see what can be achieved through hard work, dedication and taking responsibility for yourself. That’s what we want to encourage.”