125 Years of Golf in America: Arkansas June 19, 2019

The USGA was founded on Dec. 22, 1894. With the 125th anniversary coming at the end of 2019, every week throughout the year we're highlighting how all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, make the game we all love a great one in the United States. 

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Watch: Golf Channel host Lisa Cornwell reminisces about growing up and playing golf in Arkansas

Arkansas Native Founded, Fosters U.S. Kids Golf

By David Shefter, USGA

 

Dan Van Horn (center) had his family on hand when he was inducted into the Arkansas State Golf Association Hall of Fame. (Dan Van Horn) 

Dan Van Horn dabbled in a variety of vocations after graduating from the University of Arkansas with an engineering degree. The native of Russellville, Ark., first moved to Washington, D.C., to manage the Middle Atlantic region of his father’s parking meter business. When he tired of that, he spent 18 months doing missionary work and later was a sales representative for a women’s accessory company, commuting often to Fifth Avenue in New York City. He even made an unsuccessful attempt at mini-tour golf.

But it wasn’t until he moved to Atlanta that Van Horn found his true calling, at age 39. While attending his oldest son’s youth baseball game, he noticed that teams were using specialized lightweight bats to make it easier for the players to hit and generate bat speed.

Van Horn wondered if he could apply similar principles to golf. A few years earlier, he had unsuccessfully attempted to get Ben, the oldest of his three children, to play the game Van Horn had adored since his youth.

None of the major golf manufacturers at the time were creating specialized junior clubs.

“I’m a big believer in speed development,” said Van Horn, who turned down a scholarship offer to play golf and football at Arkansas Tech in his hometown to attend Arkansas. “I saw if you lightened the load, the swing got faster.

“Once you understand the lightest [and longest] club in the bag is the driver … you can reduce the weight of the other clubs. It’s simple physics.”

In 1996, Van Horn founded U.S. Kids Golf, a company that today not only manufactures specialized clubs for kids, but also conducts national and international youth tournaments, educates and trains coaches, and has launched a family tee program to make the game less daunting for beginners.

But everything started with clubs. Van Horn’s first-generation club was a cut-down 5-wood with reduced clubhead weight, which spurred son Ben’s interest in the game after he tried it. All three of his children still play, and his middle child, David, is in the Sea Island (Ga.) Professional Golf Development Program, hoping to someday play the PGA Tour.

Van Horn’s initial set featured four clubs: a fairway metal, 7-iron, pitching wedge and putter. He marketed sets for players 5 to 9 years of age and 10 to 14. Today, sets of clubs feature more than 400 combinations.

The timing of the first prototypes couldn’t have better. His first sets sold one month before Tiger Woods’ breakthrough professional victory in the 1997 Masters.

“That really helped,” said Van Horn, who recognized that golf was going to be transformed by the fledgling superstar. He once received a phone call from Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, who was elated to see clubs being made specifically for juniors.

Three years later, Van Horn was watching the Little League World Series and decided golf needed a grass roots tournament for younger players. The USGA conducts the U.S. Junior Amateur and the Girls’ Junior championships annually, and the American Junior Golf Association already ran hundreds of competitions, but players have to be 12 years old to play in AJGA tournaments.

Van Horn created a national competition in Pinehurst, N.C., and some 200 juniors showed up for the inaugural event. Today, the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship annually draws thousands of youngsters to the Sandhills of North Carolina, and there are 1,600 worldwide competitions in 60 countries, with an estimated 20,000 participants.

Reigning U.S. Junior Amateur champion Michael Thorbjornsen, who made the 36-hole cut in the recent  U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, was the U.S. Kids Golf Player of the Year in 2012-13. Alexa Pano, the 2018 U.S. Girls’ Junior runner-up and a two-time Drive, Chip & Putt national age-group champion, was featured in a Netflix documentary called “The Short Game,” which was shot during the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship.

Dan Van Horn with a young Justin Thomas at a U.S. Kids Golf event. (Van Horn)

Two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka and LPGA Tour star Lexi Thompson are alums, along with 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed and 2017 PGA champion Justin Thomas. Thompson won the 2008 U.S. Girls’ Junior and Thomas was the runner-up in the 2010 U.S. Junior Amateur.

In 2001, the U.S. Kids Golf Foundation debuted, and it provides a formalized road map to learning the game for youngsters and parents, as well as a Coaches Institute for instruction that offers  seminars for teachers to properly train youths.

“Most of the guys teaching golf are good with high-school and college-level kids, but not necessarily great with elementary-school kids,” said Van Horn. “We started the Coaches Institute in 2012 … and have trained almost 4,000 coaches around the world. We’ve developed a curriculum [in a place] where it seemed to me there was a need. We conduct 12 to 15 seminars a year where we get 40-plus coaches trained.”

The final piece came in 2015, when Van Horn purchased Longleaf Golf & Country Club in Southern Pines, N.C., renaming it Longleaf Golf & Family Club. With an influx of cash and resources, Van Horn transformed the course into a family-friendly facility that offers seven sets of tees, naming it the Longleaf Tee System. Renowned architect Rees Jones has become the national spokesman for a family-tee philosophy that is endorsed by the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA). The course can now play anywhere from 3,200 yards to 6,800 yards.

“We have tee markers on the range that are numbered based on how far you hit your driver in the air that will match you to the proper tees,” said Van Horn. “The USGA started the ‘Tee it Forward’ initiative. We’ve taken it to another level.”

Van Horn’s work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year, the Arkansas Golf Association inducted him into its Hall of Fame, a thrill he got to share with his entire family.

“I pinch myself,” said Van Horn. “I really enjoy going to work every day. Most people don’t get that opportunity. For me, it’s what can I do to make and grow kids golf in the U.S. and throughout the world.”

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.