By Peter Stilwell
The U.S. Kids Golf Foundation took its mission to heart three years ago and purchased the Longleaf Golf & Country Club in Southern Pines. Its goal was to help kids have fun learning the lifelong game of golf and to encourage family interaction that builds lasting memories.
The group is making great strides in accomplishing that mission at Longleaf.
“We are treating everything we do at Longleaf as a living laboratory for growing kids and family golf in a club environment,” said U.S. Kids Golf founder and president Dan Van Horn. “Our goal is to implement best practices in a real-life situation.”
A state of the art U.S. Kids Golf Academy continues to evolve along with the Longleaf Tee System, which has properly scaled the golf course for players of all skill levels.
The past 12 months have been a whirlwind of activity at Longleaf with the completion of several property enhancements to the facility. The clubhouse renovation has been completed and includes upgrades on the existing golf shop, locker rooms and public spaces on the inside and outside of the clubhouse.
In August 2017, U.S. Kids Golf opened its first restaurant, Heartwood Grill & Greens, which has become a popular dining outlet for the club members and the Southern Pines community. The restaurant features a new bar and lounge, two separate dining areas, a private dining and meeting room, and an outdoor seating area with a halfway house style bar.
The outdoor dining area is highlighted by a fire pit and extensive landscaping that is adjacent to the lighted practice putting course.
U.S. Kids Golf hired executive chef Charles Toomer to lead its culinary team in making Heartwood a premier restaurant for the area, and Heartwood has earned high marks for the creativity of the menu and the quality of food and service. The restaurant is open to the public for lunch Tuesday-Sunday and dinner Wednesday-Sunday. Heartwood is also open for Sunday Brunch, which has become a popular addition for restaurant.
The golf course has undergone extensive renovations and reopened last fall with brand new bermudagrass greens and improved design features for the rough and areas around the greens. Native grasses have been added to enhance the appearance of the course and to mirror the design characteristics of several area historical golf courses. The new putting surfaces are more resilient to the high summer temperatures that are typical for the region.
This year marks the 13th consecutive year that the U.S. Kids Golf World Championships will be hosted in the Pinehurst area. A recording breaking 2,400 junior golfers from over 55 different countries will compete in the world’s largest and most prestigious junior championship.
The World Championships, which are actually made up of eight individual championships including two Parent/Child Championships, a Team Championship, a Teen and a Kids World Championship, two Van Horn Cup matches and a Junior Van Horn Cup match, will be played on a record 16 different golf courses from July 24-Aug.5.
The Pinehurst and surrounding communities have benefitted greatly from this prestigious event over the last several years. In fact, the annual economic impact of the U.S. Kids Golf World Championships in the Pinehurst area exceeds $9.5 million per year, and the combined economic value for the community since U.S. Kids began coming to the “Home of American Golf” is over $120 million.
Meanwhile, Longleaf Golf & Family Club introduced a cutting-edge redesign of the standard golf course teeing system with the new Longleaf Tee Initiative. The basis of the Longleaf Tee System is color-coded tees keyed to the overall driving distance of golfers. Players measure their drives on the practice range and match where they hit their drives to the corresponding color of one of seven tees on each golf course hole. This innovated system has been endorsed by the American Society of Golf Course Architects.
“Scaling our course with multiple sets of tees makes golf more enjoyable for all players,” Van Horn said. “We have seen significant results in increasing rounds of golf from golfers that are now teeing off from the proper tee distance to the green and the pace of play has improved dramatically.”
U.S. Kids Golf sees this new tee system as a way to keep golfers with varied skill levels engaged in the game and to encourage new golfers to get involved in the game.
U.S. Kids Golf will soon open the new U.S. Kids Golf Academy building that has been constructed as the centerpiece of the practice facilities at Longleaf. The building will provide a state-of-the-art teaching facility and includes two separate training bays. One of the bays will allow students to hit directly onto the driving range, and the other bay will contain a high-tech Foresight golf simulator. This will allow for teaching during inclement weather and at night. The Academy building will also provide the location for custom club fitting, along with individual and group instruction activities.
Since the establishment of the U.S. Kids Golf Academy in 2015, close to 350 students, ages 3-18, have received comprehensive instruction from Academy director Jim Hardy and golf coach John Wainwright. The Little Chippers program, which range from ages 3-5, introduces the game to the young golfers through a series of games and activities designed to hold the kids’ interest while learning the basics of the game of golf. The kids progress through multiple levels of U.S. Kids Golf Play & Learn curriculum and receive pins as they progress through Levels 1-5. The U.S. Kids Golf Academy has recently expanded the levels of instruction to go through Level 10.
“It is rewarding to see the advancement of the Academy students as the move through the program,” Hardy said. “We continue to develop new ways to introduce and teach the fundamentals of the game to our students, all while they are learning and having fun. We have a couple of our older kids that started playing golf a couple of years ago and have recently qualified to play in the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship this year. U.S. Kids Golf is changing the way kids learn the game for the long term.”
The U.S. Kids Golf Academy offers a wide variety of instruction options including individual and group lessons, kids’ camps, parent-child camps and daily after school and weekend clinics. The Academy also offers adult instruction options, and many of the members of Longleaf take advantage of the golf clinics that are offered as part of their club membership.
In addition, the U.S. Kids Golf Academy serves as a destination for golf professionals and coaches to learn the fundamentals of teaching golf to kids and to become U.S. Kids Golf certified golf coaches. The Academy staff conducts several training seminars around the country and at Longleaf Golf & Family Club to “teach the teachers.”
The Longleaf golf course is host to the North Carolina High School Athletic Association state championships, the U.S. Kids Golf Red, White and Blue Invitational, and the 8, 9 and 13-year-old girls are returning this year at Longleaf for the U.S. Kids Golf Teen and Kid’s World Championships.
“We try new things every day,” said Jeff Cowell, director of golf and general manager for Longleaf. “We are seeing more kids and parents developing interest in learning and playing the game. We are fulfilling the mission to provide lasting memories and having both kids and parents enjoying the game together. Our living laboratory never slows down.”
Future plans for Longleaf Golf & Family Club include expansion of the pool, fitness and recreation areas.
And U.S. Kids Golf continues to increase their club membership, with a focus on young families, which will sync up perfectly with the existing Longleaf members.