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Dan Van Horn – U.S. Kids Golf

Dan Van Horn at the 2016 European Championship
Dan Van Horn at the 2016 European Championship

A true visionary sees a problem and finds a solution.

That’s exactly what Dan Van Horn did in 1996 when he founded U.S. Kids Golf.  His children wanted to learn to play golf and while they were enthusiastic at first, their interest quickly dropped.

“They weren’t having fun,” Van Horn recalls. “At the time, I didn’t realize that cutoffs and junior clubs were so heavy; they were not only hurting my kids’ swings, but also their desire to play.”

That’s when the former golf professional and engineer began developing Ultralight kids clubs, which were designed to be 25% lighter than adult and most junior clubs, and he formed the company, U.S. Kids Golf. Since then, parents and pros around the world have seen the incredible difference that lightweight and correctly fit clubs have made in their young player’s swing and enthusiasm for the game. Today, the company is the world’s leading provider of equipment.

Dan was kind enough to spend some time with us recently, but not specifically about U.S. Kids Golf products.  He shares with us what he and his company are doing to grow the game at the youth level through coaching, tournaments and their foundation.  Not only here in the United States, but around the world.

Take a listen below on Soundcloud, on our website or on subscribe free on iTunes.

You’ll not only be impressed, but also proud that we have people like Dan taking an interest in our most important asset.  Our youth.

Tom Brassell: Welcome to GolfBetter at Worldwide Golf Shops. Episode 208. Hello, everyone. My name is Tom Brassell, thanks so much for joining us. If you’re a first-time listener or a long-time subscriber, doesn’t matter. We’re just glad you joined us today. We have a special guest joining us. He’s from up in Atlanta. Actually, he is on the course at Pinehurst today where they’re hosting an event. He is the president and CEO of US Kids Golf, up in Atlanta, Georgia, Mr. Dan Van Horn. Dan, thanks so much for joining us. It’s great to have you.

Dan Van Horn: Well, thank you, Tom. It’s great to invited.

Tom Brassell:  First off, give us just a brief history of your background, how you got started and how this all came about, because this is so, so important to the game.

Dan Van Horn: Well, we started 20 years ago. I had kids, I wanted to bring kids a sport that I enjoyed the most playing, which is golf, after having played all the sports myself. I really wanted them to play and enjoy golf. That’s how US Kids Golf got started. A dad who was trying to get his kids involved.

Tom Brassell:  Wow. What you’re doing is so, so important. I think when I was a kid, I’m not sure how old you are, but the way we started was, “Hey, here’s dad’s old clubs,” or if you really got lucky, you got some cut down for you. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I think there’s a direct correlation with how good the young players are today with the equipment that they grew up with. Would that be far off?

Dan Van Horn:  Well, clearly, the idea of providing kids something that would be proportionate to their size was not what we were doing at the time, 20 years ago, it’s hard to believe. In other words, we weren’t really looking at the length of the club or weight of the club to see if it could be improved to help the young player enjoy the game. As a dad, when it became apparent to me there was a need, then that was the beginning of US Kids Golf, to provide kids with the best equipment to help them learn the game and have fun with it.

Tom Brassell: Well, many on the retail side, we know about what you do with regard to equipment, but there’s so much more than that, Dan. I’m looking at your website and you have 4 tabs there. The very last one is products. Before that is coaching and lessons, learning to play in tournaments. Share with us a little about that and what’s behind all that.

Dan Van Horn:   Yeah, if you look at every sport, soccer for instance, there’s equipment, shoes and uniforms and balls and things like that. We started our business by providing equipment, but then as we went along a few years back in 2000, we said, “Well, what are the contents of the games equipment where kids can have something to aspire to?” Looking around at golf, there was very little for the younger kids. We started with the world championship back in 2000 at Jekyll Island, Georgia, and now we’ve grown to where we host over a thousand events around the country and in about 15 foreign countries, culminating at Pinehurst each year with the largest event that they have every year in the town of Pinehurst. We have 7 or 8 thousand families and people coming, 1500 players in the US Kids Golf World Championship.

The tournament part of the business has been a very big part because it gives the kids a chance to really improve their game and work toward a goal and aspiring to make it to Pinehurst. That’s been a big part. The other part you mentioned is somewhere in between tournaments and games. There’s really the coaching itself and learning to the play the game. Parents themselves, often they’re the people who are involved in bringing their kids to the game, but they do need good coaching along the way to make it fun for them and help the kid want to come back to the course. We’ve gotten involved with that. We have coaches to recommend and then training coaches, learning to play a shorter course versus playing the course from the red tees.

Tom Brassell: Well, you hit on that right there. The shorter course and getting to enjoy the game. I was out in California a few weeks ago and was at a course on a Sunday, and they had a 194 people on the tee sheet, which to me was incredible. More importantly than that, I looked at the range and at the putting green, and it was littered with young players. They were working with coaches, and they were working on short game and hitting shots. Talk about paying it a little bit forward and enjoying the game, because it’s so daunting if you go out and learn how to play this game. It’s hard enough as it is.

Dan Van Horn: Yeah, we’ve really done our women a big disservice by calling them women’s tees, lady’s tees. They ought to be called just tees themselves. At 5,000 yards, most golf courses are really ill-equipped to help beginners, whether they be kids or seniors even as they go along. Recently, we have purchased a club, the US Kids Golf in the Pinehurst area, and we’ve implemented a 7 tee program where we put tees as short as 3200 yards, 3600, 4400 yards for 18 holes out, and our women are playing it forward from those locations. For the first time, they’re able to have pars and even make birdies, even an occasional eagle. The idea should be, in golf, instead of starting with a 5000 yard course, we should be starting much shorter than that. As our skill develops, whether it be male or female, we should go back and get back to the back tees if we’re able to. As we get older, we lose our skill. We need to be able to go forward so the game stays fun.

We’re modeling that kind of idea by putting in 7 sets of tees on our course here at Long Leaf and Pinehurst. Then we’re able to show the world that we need to rethink about how we’re going about the game. We don’t need to necessarily have separate courses just for beginners to play. We need the whole thing to happen at everybody’s course so that beginner play becomes a reality. It’s a model that the industry itself is looking at. Actually, the American Society of Golf Course Architects are embracing the idea and will be sharing the good news hopefully over the next year.

Tom Brassell: The equipment side of it, which you guys do so, so well, starts from age, what, 3 or 4 all the way up to age 12, kind of a fitting system? You have so many fitters around the country certainly in the Worldwide Golf Shops, Edwin Watts Golf, Vans, Golfers Warehouse and so on and so forth, those retail outlets, but share with us a little bit about what goes on when a young player is going to get their first set of clubs, or maybe second or third set of clubs. What’s the right thing to do for a parent or a grandparent?

Dan Van Horn: We’ve studied the idea of growth and how kids grow at different ages. It’s not a good thing just to use age as a barometer. You really need to think about how tall a person is and their growth rate. We know that kids, in general, based on statistics, grow about 3 inches a year prior to puberty. We’re learned to fit them by height. The concept that we have is that you should be able to fit your player similar to how they would be as an adult. It just doesn’t make sense to have a club that’s too long, and consequently, too heavy because it just hinders their production. We aspire to idea that fitting as they are and as they grow becoming even a little shorter is a good thing. It allows a player to handle it. We have 9 steps of fitting, really starting at age 3 on up to 12, 13, 14, although we did have a lot of ladies who play our equipment. It really provides a road map for the players and the parents to follow. Worldwide has been a great partner or ours for many years. It’s a great place to shop and learn about that. There’s a fitting stick, height chart stick, that allows the fit to go.

Tom Brassell:  Dan, before I let you go, you mentioned earlier about the tournament and the culmination in Pinehurst. That’s the crown jewel as far as the kids go because they want to learn, they want to get better. All kids, it’s natural. You want to keep score and compete, but how would someone go about finding out more about the tournament that you guys have and also the culmination at the end of the year?

Dan Van Horn:  Well, we start everything at the local level. Our dream and hope is that the kids learn golf. If you don’t have for some players something to aspire to, as the other sports, then you’re missing out. A player has to have a goal to reach upward. Go to our website, look at tournaments, get started locally. If a player desires to go compete in little events around the state or in a region of the country, they should do that. If their dream becomes to get to Pinehurst, then do that. If they have the capability watching the short game movie that was done about getting to Pinehurst, it’s on Netflix, then I think it’d be worth it. It’s a very inspirational story about kids who come and play golf at an early age, and I think it could help any kid and their parents with the whole process.

Tom Brassell: Dan, that’s for all the information you have. It is a encyclopedia of information, a wealth of it. Videos, information, not only like we said on your products, but also the tournaments and coaching and learning the game. What you guys do is so important. You are the future of the game and we appreciate you so much and thanks for all you’ve done for the game. Thanks for spending time with us. Some final words from you to our listeners, Dan?

Dan Van Horn: Yeah, just stay at it. I want to encourage parents that kids, you can bring them into the game, that your time with them is extremely important. Because of golf, you’re able to spend quality time, so it’s worth the effort to bring kids to the game. They will get it. They’ll be glad you did it because it is a wonderful lifetime relationship, relational-type game. Stay at it parents, and you’re kids will appreciate it. That would be my encouragement.

Tom Brassell:  Dan Van Horn for U.S. Kids Golf. Thanks so much for taking time with us. It’s been a pleasure.

Dan Van Horn:  Thank you, Tom. I appreciate being asked.

Tom Brassell:  Dan Van Horn from US Kids Golf. Certainly the most important part of the game. It’s the future of our game, it’s the young ones. They’re doing a fantastic job. He told me something off the air when we were chatting. We were talking about the drive, chip, and putt. He said of the 80 players that made it to drive, chip, and putt competition, which you saw on TV prior to the Masters, 68 of the 80 came through the U.S. Kids system and the finals at the Pinehurst. That’s a pretty good number. Certainly. U.S. Kids Golf, doing what they can do and more to grow the game. Special thanks again to Dan Van Horn and to you, our listeners. We’ll do it again next time. We have another episode of GolfBetter at So long, everyone.