We’ve rallied against the rise of early specialization in youth sports for years now.
But what about golf?
After all, Tiger Woods was appearing in Golf Digest at age 5, and Justin Thomas hit his first hole in one at age 6. So if a kid wants to one day make it to the PGA Tour, they basically need to come out of the womb with a wedge in their hand—right?
Not so fast. While Woods and Thomas are examples of childhood prodigies who eventually succeeded at the highest levels of golf, plenty of other successful golfers started the sport at a much older age.
Jack Nicklaus, arguably the greatest golfer in history, didn’t start playing golf until age 10. He also competed in football, baseball, tennis, and track and field throughout his youth. Ernie Els, winner of four major championships, started playing golf at age 8, but also played tennis, cricket and rugby. He didn’t specialize in golf until age 15. In addition to rugby and cricket, Greg Norman spent his childhood dreaming of being a professional surfer. Then he picked up golf at 15 and went on to total 20 wins on the PGA Tour.
Henrik Stenson didn’t play his first round of golf until age 12, and now he’s the most accurate golfer in the world. Prior to the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, Stenson spoke on the misconception that kids need to fully commit to golf early if they ever want to the sport to take them somewhere.
“It certainly was not something I’d thought about before (age 12), playing golf. I’d played soccer, played some winter sports. (My friend and his father) invited me, said ‘hey, do you want to come to the local golf course and hit a few on the driving range?’ I must’ve clipped a few with the middle of the club, because I wanted to go back. I asked my parents for some clubs and started taking lessons. (In) my family, no one played golf,” Stenson, who has six wins on the PGA Tour to date, said. “I was never the most talented kid. I liked to practice, always spent long hours practicing and kinda gradually progressed over the years. There were always other players who had more talent maybe, but I guess—obviously I wouldn’t say I didn’t have any talent, I wouldn’t be (where I am today) then—but the combination of hard work together with it is always going to beat just the talent itself.
“I think, in sports today, we see too many times where it gets too serious too early. I think it’s good for the athletic development to play many different sports as a kid, as well. You don’t need to be specific when you’re 7 or 8. Try different things. We’ve seen a lot of good players in golf, for instance, that started when they were 15, and they’ve become successful professionals. So it’s not like you have to start at the age of 3.”
As is the case with other sports, early specialization in golf can cause an increased risk of overuse injury and burnout. If a kid really only wants to play golf, then they’re certainly free to do that. But it’s not something that they should feel pressured to do by the adults in their life. Rather, kids should be encouraged to try multiple sports and stick with the ones they enjoy playing as long as they’d like.