In late February, the USGA launched the ambitious U.S. National Development Program, designed to “identify, train, develop, fund and support the nation’s most promising junior players.” With a seven-figure million budget, the goals were to help create pathways for talented players to AJGA events, college scholarships and beyond, with a key facet of the program being the creation of three national teams.
Six months later, though the fledgling program is still building its foundation and making key hires, officials will dip their toes into international competition for the first time next month when three players—Molly Brown Davidson, 17, of Springville, Ala., Mia Hammond, 15, of New Albany, Ohio, and Chloe Kovelesky, 16, of Boca Raton, Fla.—will compete under the U.S. flag at the World Junior Girls Championship in Ontario, Canada. They’ll be coached by LPGA veteran Mo Martin, UCLA alum and 2014 Women’s British Open champion.
“These first selections are a momentous point in the history of junior golf in the United States and create a trail that generations of golfers will be able to follow in the future,” said Heather Daly-Donofrio, USGA Managing Director, Player Relations and Development, in a press release. “For too long the United States has lagged in the nurturing of junior golfing talent.”
The three players traveling to Canada provide an early testament to the USNDP’s efficacy. Hammond’s coach reached out to Daly-Donofrio in February, making the point that they needed to keep Hammond on their radar. The relationship grew from there—and took a big leap forward when Hammond Monday qualified and then made the cut at an LPGA event in July.
Kovelesky came to the USDNP’s attention for her achievements in Florida, particularly when she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open, while Davidson was a player who became noticed for her success in local tournaments in Alabama.
“It’s been wonderful because we’ve had a lot of coaches and parents get their kids in front of us,” Daly-Donofrio told Golf Digest, “and that’s been really helpful because we can look at rankings to get an idea, but we’re not using that as the only factor. A lot of parents and juniors have asked, how can we get on your radar? And one way is just sending us an email through the USGA site.”
“When I was at the LPGA,” she added, “I did all the disciplinary stuff; the appeals, suspensions, everything with caddies and players, so I was always the deliverer of bad news. So when I got to call these three girls and invite them to play in this tournament, I could hear their excitement on the other end, and I thought, ‘this is amazing, I actually get to make some kids happy.'”
In their first six months of existence, the USDNP has placed 30 junior golfers into junior tournaments through their partnership with the American Junior Golf Association—evaluating those players based on talent and financial need. Daly-Donofrio says the plan is to increase that number into triple digits in 2024. One of the players they helped, Charles Nelson of Dallas, won the AJGA event sponsored by Jordan Spieth and now has an AJGA exemption.
Daly-Donofrio said the program hasn’t come close to spending its $3 million budget due to the ongoing process of building out the organization’s personnel and infrastructure. Among other positions, they’re still in the process of hiring a national head coach (Daly-Donofrio said she “hopes to have more to share soon,” and has been impressed by the volume and quality of candidates). In February, the stated aim was to establish three teams under the organization’s auspices, including a junior national team, an amateur national team and a young professionals team.
“We’re just going to start with the juniors next year,” Daly-Donofrio said. “We’ll start pretty small, with maybe six or eight boys and six or eight girls, and we’ll add more and phase the other teams in as we go. We’re going to learn so much with our first group of players.”
As the program continues to grow, Daly-Donofrio and her team hope to attract donors through a focused campaign.
“Once we establish these teams and we get players in competitions and we increase our exposure, we’re hoping that we’ll be pretty attractive to corporate partners,” she added.
The five-year goal of the program, beyond the national teams, is to fund 1,000 worthy juniors, and the broader aim is to democratize the sport for those with great potential who lack the financial means to keep up with the increasing costs as their junior careers develop. In this regard, the U.S. has trailed many countries around the world, and despite America’s success in the men’s and women’s professional game, establishing a bad precedent for the future. The three girls traveling to Canada in October are a modest beginning for the USNDP, in what officials hope only the start of a national movement.