Kid You Not

Kid You Not

By Lee Pace

Dan Van Horn was an engineer living in Atlanta and raising a family of three in the mid-1990s when it struck him how well the baseball equipment industry addressed the youth market and how poorly the golf industry was positioned for its junior players.

“You could buy a lightweight bat that felt great in a kid’s hands, but golf clubs were just crude, sawed-off clubs that were still too heavy and had shafts too stiff for a kid’s strength,” he says. “My kids weren’t having any fun with golf.”

So from the “better mousetrap” department, Van Horn in 1996 created a company called U.S. Kids Golf to manufacture quality junior golf clubs — with proper swing weights and shaft flexes. One thing led to another and in 2000 he staged a tournament for kids aged 6 to 12 at Jekyll Island, Ga., in part to promote his clubs but also to foster the idea of golf as the consummate family activity. He had the vision to name it a “world championship,” and some 250 players and their families attended.


The launch of Tiger Woods onto the golf landscape in 1996 and the attendant views of his appearance as a 2-year-old on The Mike Douglas Show with a picture book swing certainly were serendipitous for his new venture. And there was nothing on the golf landscape to equal the Little League World Series.

“There were some local golf tournaments and your state’s junior championship, but for the elite player there was nothing aspirational on a big picture scope,” Van Horn says. “There was travel baseball but in golf there was nothing on a national or worldwide level to play for.”

U.S. Kids began staging its World Championships in Pinehurst in 2006 and has evolved into a cornerstone of the community’s golf and hospitality calendar. This year’s major events will bring 700-plus golfers aged 13-18 to the Sandhills July 27-29 and 1,500-plus aged 6-to-12 the following week in what is billed as the largest golf event in the world. The festivities begin with an opening “Parade of Nations” through the Village of Pinehurst with competitors grouped by country, like The Olympics. When Pinehurst hosted the 2014 U.S. Open and Women’s Open, Van Horn and his staff counted 26 competitors in the two fields combined who were U.S. Kids alumni, among them Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed, Lexi Thompson, Beau Hossler, Smylie Kaufman and Mariah Stackhouse.
“To see those kids from all over the world with the signs of their countries, to see the genuine smiles on their faces that they are loving their experience, is, as they say, priceless,” says Marty McKenzie, a lifelong Pinehurst resident and businessman. “I have seen everything from the Ryder Cup in ’51 to the U.S. Open here, and there is nothing like seeing these kids play golf.”

A three-pronged stool of equipment, competition and family has proven throughout nearly three decades to be one of the sturdiest and most influential bastions in the golf world today. In 2015, Van Horn added a fourth prong, a permanent golf facility, when he purchased Longleaf Golf Club and renamed it Longleaf Golf & Family Club. U.S. Kids Golf Academy is now located at the club midway between Pinehurst and Southern Pines off Midland Road.

“We wanted to have a presence in the Pinehurst community,” he says. “We felt very welcome here, very supported by the community. The synergies around the Pinehurst/Southern Pines area as a golf capital, a golf mecca have been important to us. It seemed like a great place to layer in more of the idea of kids golf, family golf.”

Stephen Cryan was the director of retail operations at Pinehurst in 2009 when his son, Griffin, played in the U.S. Kids event at Pinehurst. Now he’s general manager at Longleaf and has a second son, Parker, coming up through the competitive ranks. He thinks back to Griffin’s frustration in getting playing time in other youth league sports and finding golf the perfect sport because you get out of it exactly what you put into it.

“Golf is a meritocracy,” Cryan says. “Griffin said, ‘It’s all up to me on the golf course.’ You take your clubs and ball and go play. A coach doesn’t take you off the golf course like they do on the basketball court. Those kids who tee it up at Pinehurst in the World Championship, they earned their way here. That’s the beauty of it.

“It’s amazing to see what has happened with U.S. Kids over the years. Pinehurst was not ready for it back in 2006. But we quickly learned how important this was to the resort and the community. Today, U.S. Kids is the leader in the growth of the game of golf. No one is doing more to promote golf and bring people into the game.”


Chapel Hill-based writer Lee Pace has written about golf in the Sandhills since the late 1980s and has authored a dozen books about the clubs, courses and people who have made it special over more than a century.


014: Lee Pace, author and publisher


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