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.