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Thursday, April 18, 2024

NC Golf: Kids’ play pays off big for Moore County

Moore County scores an annual boost from a global competition for talented youth duffers.

Dan Horn founded U.S. Kids Golf in the mid-1990s while raising a family in Atlanta. Watching his two sons struggle with adult-sized golf equipment, the former three-sport high school athlete came up with an idea to make the game more accessible and enjoyable for kids.

Tapping into his engineering background and an entrepreneurial spirit, Van Horn
invented clubs that were 25% lighter than adult clubs, with four lines of swing weights and shaft flexes for different ages and skill levels. His product morphed into a major youth
golf equipment and services provider, with distributorships in 80 nations serving nearly 4,500 accounts.

In 2000, Van Horn staged a tournament at Jekyll Island, Georgia for kids aged 6 to 12, calling it a “world championship.” Some 250 players showed up, along with their families.

In August, the tournament will celebrate its 25th anniversary, including more than a dozen since Van Horn moved the event to the Pinehurst area in 2005. Now, more than 1,500 players from 50-plus nations are represented each year. “The synergies around the Pinehurst-Southern Pines area as a golf capital have been important to us,” Van Horn says. “It seemed like a great place to layer in more of the idea of kids golf, family golf.”

The Parade of Nations, a vibrant display of cultural unity held on the first Tuesday of August in Pinehurst, showcases the participants’ diversity and fosters a sense of community among players, families  and spectators. The event, which has a player registration fee of $425 to $495, is a cornerstone of the Sandhills region’s hospitality calendar, significantly benefitting hotels, restaurants and shops.

“Pinehurst Resort and U.S. Kids Golf have created a winning partnership, crowning young champions on the course while leaving an economic impact off it,” says Eric Kuester, vice president of sales/marketing & business development at the resort. He estimates a $16-million annual economic impact for the two-week event, “It leaves a lasting mark on our communities.”

The event has attracted youngsters who have become famous pros, including Justin Thomas, Colin Morikawa, Lexi Thompson and Alexa Pano. It didn’t hurt that Netflix in 2013 produced its first original documentary, “The Short Game,” for an inside look at the championship.

The Moore County event is part of what has become the world’s largest golf tournament organization, hosting 2,173 events in 2023. More than 90% of U.S. Kids Golf events are local competitions, in more than 100 cities. Nearly 30,000 players in
63 countries will take part in a U.S. Kids Golf event this year.
Those playing in the annual championship must qualify by earning points through local competitions.

Van Horn, who splits his time between North Carolina and Georgia, declined to provide financial details. But Golf Business magazine in 2022 noted “no company in golf has done more to grow the game than U.S. Kids Golf.”

In 2015, the group’s foundation acquired the Longleaf Golf
& Country Club, midway between Pinehurst and Southern Pines. Van Horn calls it “a living lab,” with the course offering seven tee locations measuring from 3,200 yards to 6,800 yards. The foundation constructed a Learning Center and a six-hole, par-3 short course, while renaming the facility the Longleaf Golf & Family Club.

There, the U.S. Kids Golf Coaches Institute trains golf coaches, certifying more than 6,500 since its inception. The institute’s innovations include the Player Pathway program used at many golf academies and the Longleaf Tee System, which scales yardages depending on age and skill. It’s working with the U.S. Golf Association to refine its programs across the industry.

“I really felt there were three necessary components in youth sports, not just golf,” says Van Horn. “Equipment, competition, and instruction. I think the initiative for kids to play golf is more than just kids playing golf — it’s getting the whole family into playing golf.”

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