It could have passed for a pitch for a stereotypically crass reality-TV show: Pick five of Canada’s best junior girls’ golfers, house them for months on end in the same resort condominium, and watch them compete feverishly while splitting the cooking and cleaning.
“I think we were all really worried at first,” said Ellie Szeryk, 16. “I mean, having a bunch of teenaged girls in one house is kind of a scary thought.”
Scary, in some eyes. But the folks who run the developmental arm of Golf Canada were also of the mind that the arrangement could be athletically beneficial. Or so went the thinking that hatched a program that brought 10 of Canada’s best teenaged golfers — five girls and five boys — to Victoria, B.C. to practise, play and coexist together from February through June. This kind of centralization is standard for plenty of Canada’s sporting organizations and Victoria, with its temperate climate, has been home to more than a few such initiatives, including national training centres for rowing and rugby. But a residency program had never before been tried in golf — that is, until February, when Canada’s national development squads began a five-month stint at Victoria’s Bear Mountain Resort.
Previously the members of the national development team spent the winter attending a series of multi-day warm-weather camps in the U.S., an arrangement that put them face to face with Golf Canada’s coaching staff about 35 days a year. Jeff Thompson, Golf Canada’s chief sport officer, said the residency program more than tripled those player-coach contact days to about 120 — one of the key impetuses behind the initiative.
“It’s hard to help someone until you know them, and if you’re only seeing them 30 days a year you’re never really getting to know them until it’s too late,” said Matt Wilson, coach of the girls’ development team.
The project, of course, was neither cheap nor free. Thompson said athletes were asked to pony up $9,500 apiece, which covered all expenses — including travel to a handful of far-flung tournaments and one U.S. training camp. The program’s actual cost, Thompson said, was something in the range of $50,000 to $60,000 per golfer, money that came from sponsors such as RBC, CP and Acushnet, and from Own the Podium, the Olympic-focused sport-funding organization. Thompson said that price tag was “incrementally” more expensive than the previous model.
“We felt that if we could do this (with the athletes in) high school, it probably presented the best opportunity for development, and came at a time when the athletes were still in their formative years,” Thompson said. “It’s a great opportunity to instil good habits in them and make technical changes at a crucial period in their development.”
Certainly the program will be celebrating a couple of success stories this coming week at the CP Women’s Open in Regina. Two members of the girls’ development team, Szeryk and Celeste Dao, will be among the field of LPGA Tour pros headlined by Canada’s Brooke Henderson, the world No. 16. For the 17-year-old Dao, the reigning Canadian junior champion from suburban Montreal, it’ll be another highlight in a year that also saw her qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. Szeryk, who is capping a summer in which she won the Ontario women’s amateur, said the in-house competition at Bear Mountain — not to mention mandatory 6:30 a.m. strength and conditioning workouts, and regular talks with a Golf Canada sports psychologist — helped make her a better player.
“Back at my home course I didn’t have anyone to play against. I was kind of by myself,” Szeryk said over the phone from Ireland, where she and Dao both lost in the round of 16 at last week’s Girls’ British Open Amateur Championship. “So coming to Bear Mountain and having four other girls those five months to compete against — compete in every aspect, workouts in the gym, and just any kind of games — was really big for me.”
While members of the boys’ team — which included Canadian junior champion Christopher Vandette of Beaconsfield, Que. — mostly billeted with local families, the girls’ squad shared the household chores in a condo a short walk from Bear Mountain’s pair of Jack Nicklaus-designed layouts.
“We all got along really well. The drama that happened, we dealt with it right away and we made sure it didn’t continue throughout the year,” said Szeryk.
There are, of course, no sure things in the business of developing would-be world-class athletes. Joe Baker, a sports scientist at York University who has spent years studying talent identification and development, said the exact formula remains elusive to even the most moneyed entities.
“To be honest, nobody in the world is doing this very well,” Baker said.
While Baker said Golf Canada’s residency program comes with plenty of positives — “Providing the athletes with more resources, providing them with better coaching and better facilities, that’s all great,” Baker said — it isn’t without possible drawbacks. More than one Canadian pro who’s heard about the Bear Mountain program has whispered a concern about creating coddled and entitled athletes in a sport that ultimately demands self reliance and resilience. Thompson, who said Golf Canada intends to give the program a three-year run before re-evaluating its merits, said he “agrees with that concern” and is “open to constructive feedback on it.” He points out, though, that these same athletes, many of whom are already verbally committed to NCAA programs, will be treated even more royally on their U.S. college squads.
“When we have people training in a team environment for an individual sport, are we compromising some of the things they need to develop as individuals?” Baker said. “The assumption is, when we identify these kids in Grade 10 and 11, that we can make an accurate prediction of their likelihood of being successful. And all the evidence we have is that’s not true.”
Thompson acknowledged that Golf Canada doesn’t consider the Bear Mountain model the singular answer to the developmental question. He said it’s important to continue work at the club level to stock the “pipeline” with youth talent.
“As we talk about this centralized model, it works for some but not necessarily for all,” Thompson said.
Still, there’s no denying Golf Canada is being more proactive than it’s ever been in attempting to nurture the next generation of would-be pros. This year there were seven Canadians competing on the PGA Tour and five on the LPGA Tour, but there’s no singular recipe for such top-level success. Both Mike Weir, the best player Canada has ever produced, and Henderson, Canada’s top women’s professional of the moment, grew up playing and practising obsessively on relatively humble courses in small-town Ontario, with no resort-town residencies on their resumes. Still, Szeryk, who intends to be back in the program next winter, figures her time at Bear Mountain will be “good preparation for university.”
“You always hear stories about junior golfers who go to the NCAA and it’s a huge shock to them,” Szeryk said. “I think the whole maturity of being away from home and being able to take care of yourself, that was a huge thing we learned this year.”
Another thing that was gleaned from year one: A notion that it might be best for the girls’ team to abandon their condo and reside with Victoria-based billet families of their own.
“Everyone needs some space,” Wilson said.
Said Dao with a wry chuckle: “There were positives and negatives (to living in the same condo). But at the end … we missed each other.”
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk