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From elementary to high school, students are taking up golf in increasing numbers, many arguably driven by the success of female pro golfers Ai Miyazato and Sakura Yokomine, on the links and as personalities.

About 3,600 elementary school children signed up with the Japan Golf Association as junior members last year, more than double the number in 2002. That outstrips the number of junior high and high school students — 2,700 and 3,200, respectively — who joined the JGA, the organization which controls amateur golf in this country.

Mixing with the adults, many elementary and junior high school students come after school to practice at the Ace Golf Stadium driving range in Mito, Ibaraki Prefecture.

One of them is Eri Tobita, 12, who last year won the national championship for elementary school girls organized by the Junior Japan Golf Association.

Tobita, who started playing golf in the second grade, aspires to be a good pro player like Miyazato, 21, from Okinawa Prefecture, and Momoko Ueda, 20, from Kumamoto Prefecture. She comes to the driving range almost every day, receiving lessons for 500 yen.

Hideki Tachi, a director of Ace Golf’s driving range, said only five children joined when his company opened the junior golf school in 1999, but the number has risen to about 60 now. About half are girls.

He said Miyazato and Yokomine, 21, from Kagoshima Prefecture, have had a significant effect on junior golfers. They turned pro in 2003 and 2004, respectively, and breathed new life into professional golf in Japan.

The sporting-goods industry posted about 244 million yen in sales of equipment for children in 2005, up about 10 times the amount in 2002.

Bridgestone Sports Co. and SRI Sports Ltd. are not just selling golf gear. They also hold lessons for young golfers in an effort to expand the number of the estimated 10 million amateur golfers in the country.

The Rock Hill Golf Club in Ibaraki Prefecture is among those clubs that make their courses available to junior golf players for low fees. Elementary and junior high school students can play on the course for as little as 1,500 yen.

The club regards the low fee as an investment in youngsters, hoping they will come back to the course when they grow up.

Takehiro Hayashi, JJGA managing director, said there is a big advantage for amateur golfers in becoming accustomed to golf clubs early in their lives. Miyazato and Yokomine took up golf when they were 4 and 9, respectively.

Those who acquire a flair for approach shots and putting during their childhood are way ahead of the pack when they become adults, Hayashi said.

“I’d like to see the emergence of golfers like Ichiro (Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners),” he said.

The JJGA is making an effort to develop players by dispatching high-ranking national competitors to world championships and offering an annual scholarship of 600,000 yen to the person named most outstanding player.

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