FORT WAYNE, Ind. – They play with a simple objective in mind: Become the No. 1 player in the state of Texas, become the best player in the country. For the top three juniors in the 2014 class, standing alone in the Lone Star State is an increasingly difficult task.
Just consider this scouting report:
• Connor Black, 15, of Katy: One of the purest ballstrikers on any junior circuit, short hitter, great putter, steady demeanor, proven champion.
• Will Zalatoris, 14, of Plano: Has “the best swing in junior golf,” said one prominent player, not afraid to go low, has seemingly infinite potential.
• Scottie Scheffler, 15, of Dallas: Scrappy, scrambler and sneaky, will only get better as his body fills out.
Get to know them. Study their games. All three are in the top 17 here at the Junior PGA Championship, one of the final events of the summer. In a few weeks, they’ll begin their sophomore year of high school, even if their college courtship began years ago. Coaches began contacting Black in 2007, when he was in seventh grade. Now, he doesn’t even notice their presence on the course. Zalatoris won’t seriously consider colleges until next year. And Scheffler is playing hard to get, like he’s choosing between potential dates for Friday night.
“These younger guys have the will and want-to more than the older guys,” said Cody Proveaux, a 17-year-old Clemson commit and the No. 4 player in the Golfweek Junior Rankings. “All the college coaches are following them.”
The trio from Texas are good friends, two since age 8, and you can’t help but wonder if in a few years they’ll join forces and play at the same school and reshape the college landscape and . . . no. They say that’s, like, sooo far away. For now, they’re focused on getting better, winning tournaments and keeping a stranglehold on the top of the 2014 Golfweek rankings.
Because if you become the No. 1 player in Texas, you become the best player in the country.
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Any discussion of the best junior players must start with Black, for he is the current No. 1 in the state. He began the season with lofty goals: He wanted to be the AJGA Rolex Player of the Year (a strong possibility). At the very least he wanted to be a first-team AJGA All-American (a virtual lock). He wanted to win the U.S. Junior (lost in the Round of 16). And he wanted to win the Western Junior (did so in July).
“I always thought I could play this well,” he said, “but I worked my tail off in the spring, and it’s finally paying off.”
Though Black’s game lacks histrionics – “It’s as boring as it gets,” Zalatoris says – the results are indisputable. In three consecutive starts this summer, Black finished third at the AJGA FootJoy Invitational, won the Western Junior and lost in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Junior to eventual champion – and fellow Texan – Jordan Spieth.
As a result, the letters from college programs have flooded in. Black says that though he’s never counted the exact amount, “you can name a college and I’ve probably gotten a letter from them.” His mother, Laurie, organizes all the letters in a box neatly kept with tabs. He replies to every questionnaire, writes thank-you notes to coaches who watch him play, tries to be as polite as he can.
“It means a lot to be thought of like that,” he said.
Zalatoris, who turns 15 on Aug. 16, says he’s received about 30 letters from potential colleges, and he, too, soon will have to make some very important decisions. More important now, however, is ironing out a swing that briefly went awry.
This is an age, remember, when growth spurts – remember those? – can influence results. Zalatoris has grown 4-5 inches in the past 12 months – now up to 6 feet, 1 inch – and that altered his sight lines and his angles and, suddenly, his power. “It can help you distance-wise,” he said, “but sometimes that distance can go in the wrong direction.” With help from instructor David Price at Bent Tree Country Club in Dallas, Zalatoris has flattened his swing and feels more confident in his new frame. (That’s the same David Price who gave Dustin Johnson the controversial penalty at last year’s PGA at Whistling Straits.)
“Will just looks good when he plays golf,” Black said. “The swing is pretty.”
And Scheffler is, well, scrappy. At the 2010 U.S. Junior, he gave up 80 yards off the tee to stroke-play medalist Curtis Thompson but took him to the 18th hole before losing. Since then, Scheffler has grown about 5 inches, to 5-11. Though he still lags behind most players in the Junior PGA field, he is able to compete with Zalatoris and Black with regularity – including here at Sycamore Hills, where he is tied for ninth, nine strokes back of leader Zachary Wright.
“They’re all good players,” Proveaux said.
How that translates to the next level remains to be seen, because college orientation isn’t for three summers hence. “Recruiting is a big deal,” Zalatoris said, “but I still have the mind-set of being in eighth grade. College is a long time from now.”
And a more intriguing race – being the No. 1 player in Texas, being the No. 1 player in the country – is just heating up.