By James Bignell

On a blustery bobble-hatted December day Growing Golf Academy welcomes its usual group of junior golfers, while the parents clutch hot drinks from the clubhouse, and maybe eavesdrop on the coaches’ tips for their own game. There are kids of all ages gathered in groups, working on their skills, enjoying one another’s good shots, engaging with the coaches, happily unaware of the work and dedication that underlines their weekend fun.

In 2017 Rob Antoun and Mark Trow founded Growing Golf Academy at Kings Hill Golf Club. Mark represented Wales from the age of 14 upwards and played for Great Britain vs Europe in 2006. He’d reached a handicap level of +3.5 before heading to America on a golf scholarship.

As head coach at Kings Hill he was already a favorite with a number of the juniors when together with Rob, dad to four golfers and familiar with the tennis coaching business, they recognized the demand for top class coaching for junior golfers, not offered at many clubs.

We visited schools, promoted golf in assemblies, attended summer camps and put a golf club in as many people’s hands as possible! explained Rob. They saw their junior academy grow from 35 to 145 players in the first two years and they now run 50 separate junior coaching sessions per week across five venues.

They also run midweek after-school clubs at 10 schools in the area – and these provide a valuable pipeline of juniors into their academy program. Overall, they now coach over 300 juniors per week, many of whom follow up with private lessons from the 17 professional coaches on their staff.

Back in the summer I took some pictures for Rob and Mark and remembered when my son Abe used to bounce along to these Saturday group sessions. Next August he’ll be off to Texas on a golf scholarship and I wondered how many different stories Growing Golf has sparked over the years. Popping back for a chat on this wintery afternoon I see no let-up of enthusiasm or interest from the juniors. What I see is plenty more stories in the making.

Tilly comes quite a distance to Kings Hill Golf Club every Saturday as her home club doesn’t have a junior program. Her golfing grandad is delighted with the rapport the coaches here have with the kids and wishes more clubs had this offering. Like her idol Georgia Hall, Tilly is keen to make a mark and Kent State Golf already have an eye on her and her smooth swing.

George, 12, has been coming since Growing Golf began after two previous clubs’ junior programs had shut down. He’s another one from a golfing family and is itching to get out onto the course soon. His grandad believed golf had taught George’s dad so much about respect, discipline and maturity from mixing with adults out on the course from a young age and feels George will benefit in the same way.

12 year old Matthew, ready to move up to the performance squad next spring, loves the social side of coming along to Growing Golf every Saturday. Ethan and Amelia, his chirpy younger brother and sister, are also enthusiastic players which their dad hopes will lead to lifelong enjoyment of the game with all the social benefits he enjoyed when he learned the game himself at age 30.

Rob introduced Freddie, a chilled sixth former, for a quick chat. He has worked wonders on bringing down his handicap despite only playing for just over a year. He’s on his school team and is looking forward to finally beating his dad, which sounds like it could be pretty soon. “I really enjoy the challenge of Growing Golf and how they push me out of my comfort zone,” he said. His advice to other youngsters playing their first tournament is learning how to turn nerves into excitement – and chewing gum.

Shaking his head, Freddie described the peacefulness he felt being outside, “I love hearing that contact with the ball.”

As I struggled for a word to convey how I’d felt getting out on the course for the first time when I was young, Freddie calmly replied “Looking down from the third hole with the hills in the background – it’s bliss.”

Rob and Mark have seen some of their youngsters playing for their county, winning national events, being selected into English Golf Squads, and gaining scholarships to colleges in the USA but they both feel their real measure of success is watching someone’s confidence grow as their enjoyment carries them along.

While some are from golfing families, many are treading a path into a new world. Bringing the game that they love to more and more people is Growing Golf’s mission. “Some of these parents had never set foot in a golf club before” said Rob, genuinely pleased to be breaking down the old sitcom cliches about golf club elitism.

Through their Play-Score-Compete program they build a bridge from fun group sessions to confidence on the course. This includes all the little things such as knowing how to score, how to mark a ball, even where to stand; as well as the techniques, tactics and the physical and psychological aspects of the game.

Progress is not age-based but in tune with ability and readiness from the ‘Active Aces’; those new to the game, to the ‘Flag Hunters’; those playing regularly on a course, up to the ‘Dream Team’; active golf club members with an established handicap. Every two months they run a Super Skills session which is a fun way to keep score of each player’s development.

Aside from the kids, they currently run 20 adult sessions per week alongside numerous individual lessons and playing lessons. Whether it’s parents deciding to give it a go themselves, or those nervous about up-coming work-golf events, someone brushing up their rusty skills or plotting golf holidays, they really are getting those golf clubs into plenty of hands.

Weather never stops play at Growing Golf, consistency is fundamental. They never cancel a session with every venue offering covered areas for players to work on their putting, or analize their swing through Trackman Technology. Alongside Kings Hill you’ll find them, rain or shine at Hilden Park Golf Club and Poult Wood Golf Club; and Rob and Mark have even invested in building structures to offer the Dry Range at Nigel’s Golf Club and a new covered range structure at Tudor Park Golf Club built specifically for junior coaching.

Out of the wind for a couple of minutes, a group of teens pop undercover for a mid-session debrief where they can calmly take notes and be nudged into some serious thinking before getting back outside to put the learning into practice. It’s a joy to see the mutual respect between the kids and the coaches as they are encouraged to come indoors to warm up if necessary, maybe watch for a while if they choose.

This emphasis to look after themselves, to think for themselves, is all part of the philosophy of ‘growing’. Decision-making is a major part of golf and growing in confidence is at the root. Rob and Mark are proud to see this groundwork go way beyond the golf course.

As their motto states: Growing Skills Growing People Growing Golf

James Bignell, Instagram @the_golfphotographer

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