The USGA just officially launched a national development program. Here’s what it is and why it’s a big deal
Imagine for a moment that you're a 13-year-old boy from Des Moines, Iowa, and you've shown a preternatural ability at golf, but you've got a few problems. First, it's not exactly clear what you should do next—how do you get from where you are to the PGA Tour, or even just to a college scholarship? Second, let's imagine that some of the available pathways to you, like the American Junior Golf Association and its series of tournaments that serve as showcases test your game against the country's best juniors, are unavailable because your parents can't spend the necessary money to send you around the country to compete. What exactly do you do, armed with a dream but a dearth of practical ways to achieve it?
As of today, with the formal announcement of the U.S. National Development Program, the USGA is attempting to provide an answer to that question. With a $3 million budget for its first year, the USNDP's stated mission is to "identify, train, develop, fund and support the nation's most promising junior players." This includes the formation of three different national teams that will compete against other countries across the globe, meeting at a rotating selection of team camps during the year to expose the players to a variety of courses.
Heather Daly-Donofrio, a two-time winner on the LPGA Tour, spent the first part of her post-playing career working at the LPGA under then-commissioner Mike Whan and stayed there in various capacities all the way through COVID. She allowed herself a short professional break after managing both communications and operations at the LPGA through the pandemic, but when Whan became the CEO of the USGA in 2021, he reached out to bring her on board as the Director of Player Relations Development, with a specific mandate to oversee this new program. Her professional experience notwithstanding, it was a perfect fit for Daly-Donofrio, for whom the scenario described above was not at all unfamiliar.
"I grew up as a swimmer," she said over a Zoom call this week. "I started swimming at the Y, continued to train, made states, continued to train, made regionals and then made zones, and then junior nationals. Well, in golf, there's not really that clear progression. There's really no clear and coordinated pathway where somebody [knows] if you want to be here, you have to do this. How do you get that right?"
"We simply ask our athletes, parents and coaches to forge their own path," Whan added in Friday's press release, "without any unified national guidance or financial support."
If you were to distill the mission of the USNDP down to a single word, it would be "pathway." As Daly-Donofrio explained, this program is not aimed like many others at introducing golf to new, diverse populations—at least not directly. It's there specifically for talented, committed players, starting at ages 12 and 13, whose parents have made some investment, but who have found themselves at a standstill and are at risk of falling out of the game. However, by identifying those players, Daly-Donofrio is optimistic that it will work toward creating a more diverse landscape in professional golf, both by directly funding players of less typical backgrounds and by whatever influence those players bring to bear if they reach the highest levels of the sport.
The foundation of the USDNP is a "sustainable grant program" that works in conjunction with the USGA's allied golf associations to identify worthy recipients. The program intends to fund 50 juniors this year, with the aim of funding more than 1,000 by 2027. (The funding will be based on financial need and won't be equal among players; the USGA expects the first players to be identified for grants before the U.S. Open in June.) Along with tournament entry fees, the program will establish three national teams—a junior national team, an amateur national team, and a young professional team—and channel funds into fields as varied as instruction, equipment, statistics and sports psychology. In addition, they have already reached deals with organizations like the AJGA to provide tournament exemptions for players.
In designing the program, the USGA looked to national programs from other countries as models. Daly-Donofrio singled out Canada, Sweden, Finland and Australia, among others, saying that they aim to replicate aspects of each that they liked. The biggest difference, of course, is that those programs are funded at a governmental level, and the USGA's task with this program looks even more ambitious when you consider that they are essentially taking on the role of a government program.
It also leads to the question of "why now?" In Friday's press release, Whan noted that the U.S. is at a "huge competitive disadvantage" due to the lack of a national development program. That may be true in comparison to other major golf countries, but that conceit also must co-exist with the fact that the U.S. remains, overwhelmingly, the world's strongest producer of men’s professional golf talent, and second at worst in women's golf. Nevertheless, according to Daly-Donofrio, that reality can actually disguise growing trends on the sub-professional levels.
Heather Daly-Donofrio, formerly with the LPGA Tour, is overseeing the new U.S. National Development Program, which has a $3 million budget for its first year and a stated mission to "identify, train, develop, fund and support the nation's most promising junior players." (Photo courtesy of USGA/John O'Boyle)
"We are virtually the only sport that is an Olympic sport in the U.S. that does not have a development program," she said. "There is no reason why we should not be giving the same amount and level of resources that other countries receive. I mean, we see it in the colleges. College coaches recruit overseas, and they're doing that for a reason. … We talk to them about why they're recruiting international players, and one quality they have is this sense of team. Even if you look at the PGA Tour, it's becoming much more international, and you can see it particularly on the women's side. It's time for us to support our American athletes the way every other country supports theirs and ensure that we remain the global leader in the game."
All of which is to say that the lack of a program has potentially limited the U.S. talent pool, and while that pool remains strong due to a massive population base, it risks being overtaken due to the organizational structure elsewhere in the world; an outcome that looks all but inevitable if wealth is a prerequisite for the vast majority of American professional golfers. Conversely, Daly-Donofrio and the USGA imagine a system where young golfers feel totally supported in all aspects of their journey—"we want to be the first call on whatever they need," she said—and exist inside a team environment that nurtures, rather than stunts, their growth.
It's easy to imagine this paying dividends within a decade or less, particularly if the goal of funding 1,000 juniors by 2027 is met. If the goal is to democratize the sport, the obvious first step is finding where money becomes just as important as talent, and solving the first half of that equation. A more financially diverse American golf landscape is good for everyone, and the USNDP exists to eliminate the roadblocks that stand in its way.