Junior academies: A life totally focused on golf

Gary Gilchrist works with a student on the range at Mission Inn in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla., home of his own junior golf academy.

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At the end of every long day, after grinding for 3 1/2 hours on the range, after listening to a mental trainer drone on about on-course comportment, after enduring three 90-minute classes and strength-training for an hour and working on homework through the night, Phasit “Sun” Wongwaiwate finally calls home. It’s nearly 10 p.m. here on the East Coast, but he needn’t worry about waking his parents – half a world away in Chiang Mai, Thailand, they just finished breakfast.

Sitting at a desk in his three-bedroom apartment in Bluffton, S.C., near Hilton Head Island, the 18-year-old senior at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy chitchats with his mother, Wanawisa.

How is your golf game progressing?

What will you write for your next essay assignment?

Why did your favorite sweater shrink in the laundry?

Since August, Wongwaiwate has seen his family only five days, on an abbreviated winter break, but this $60-per-month international calling card affords them unlimited access. So, too, does Facebook. He and his sister, Sandy, 16, frequently swap silly YouTube videos. They message each other, and suddenly it feels like home, it feels comfortable – even some 9,000 miles apart.

“Being here at the academy,” Wongwaiwate said, “it feels like I’m on an adventure. I feel that my time here is fun and full of new discoveries – about golf, life and myself.”

Of course, such adventures come with a price tag – upward of $70,000 per year – and no guarantee of future success, no assurance that a scholarship offer will be neatly packaged with a diploma. Nonetheless, junior-golf academies have become big business in developing the total athlete. Promising domestic students enroll in hopes of fast-tracking their careers and drawing the attention of college coaches. International players, such as Wongwaiwate, are enticed by the prospects of training with like-minded peers in a golf-centric environment, while also earning a degree and becoming acclimated to American life: the language, weather, food and golf courses.

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Still, academy life prompts many questions: Why bypass the typical high-school experience? Are students more prepared for college and professional golf?

And the overarching question: Are the sacrifices, the long days and the hefty tuition checks really worth it?

• • •

Rarely is there a quiet moment on the IMG campus in Bradenton, Fla. On any given day, some 800 students and 650 full-time employees (trainers, instructors, support staff) wander amid bustling tennis courts and tall palm trees. Everything is clean, bright, state-of-the-art. Athletic facilities, student housing and classrooms sprawl across 450 gated acres. The IMG facilities are so vast, in fact, that a tram continuously ferries students – the ones who don’t throw their golf bags on their backs and hop on bicycles – from the campus proper over a swampy ravine to the golf facilities on the southwest end of the property.

When students initially arrive at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, they are evaluated by a cadre of swing coaches and physical trainers, then placed into coaching pods of seven students. Coaches, such as third-year IMG instructor Grant Price, work to create a swing that players can evaluate themselves. Every few weeks, coaches email detailed progress reports across the world to the students’ parents. Price not only oversees practice time but coaches his players around the golf course, accompanies them to tournaments and steps into the role of surrogate parent when needed.

Classify daily life at IMG as playing with a purpose. That ranges from golf competitions among coaching pods to daily workouts with physical trainers to vision-training sessions that build eye strength through games with flashing lights, whirligigs and balance boards. Even media training is disguised as imaginative improvisation sessions.

“The one question I get a lot is whether or not we’re a normal school,” said fifth-year student Jordan Lippetz, 17, from Piedmont, Calif. “It may seem from the outside that we’re kind of rigid. For our situation, it’s normal.”

• • •

It is midafternoon on Hilton Head Island as teacher Sarah Hobson stands behind the lectern in front of her 12-student government/economics class. Today’s topic is the organization of Congress. Most of the students – from Thailand, Malaysia, Switzerland, Estonia, Japan and, yes, the U.S. – fill in the correct answers on the worksheet. Others fidget in their seats or whisper to classmates.

Students enrolled at the Hank Haney IJGA take classes at Heritage Academy, an accredited private school. (Last year’s valedictorian attends Princeton.) Though they take only three 90-minute classes daily in a block semester schedule, the students’ coursework is fast-paced and intensive, particularly for those for whom English is not their first language. Ayaka Nakayama, 18, from Kawasaki, Japan, couldn’t speak English when she arrived in August 2010. Now, she easily converses and can speak with prospective college coaches on the phone without a translator. Not that it was easy. “You have to study more just to catch up,” she said.

Upperclassmen such as Nakayama study in their living quarters at The Lakes at Myrtle Park (less than a 5-minute drive from the IJGA’s home base, Pinecrest Golf Club), where two students share a bedroom. The updated, 1,500-square-foot units in Bluffton feature two twin beds, two nightstands and two dressers in each bedroom; a TV in the common area; and a fully equipped kitchen and washer/dryer. It’s mother-approved.

Back on Hilton Head Island, the Brittany Place condominiums are geared toward younger students and feature more of a collegial vibe, with three bedrooms for seven kids. Here, life skills such as sharing, responsibility and general cleanliness are emphasized. A bulletin board in the living room details the breakfast menu, fitness reminders and laundry schedules. It feels like home. The handwritten letters from mom tacked to the fridge. The pencil markings on the wall to chart the kids’ height. The special rewards, such as riding shotgun in the courtesy Chevy Suburban after a tournament victory. One of the residential instructors, Art Noyes, even taught a few students how to shave. They grow up here.

• • •

Other life skills are fostered under Lee-Anne Gilchrist’s protective wing. She maintains the corner office in the modest administrative building at husband Gary Gilchrist’s namesake academy in Howey-in-the-Hills, Fla. It’s here where she keeps a folder charting the progress, aspirations, strengths and weaknesses of each student. And it’s here where those students come when they need a confidante. Lee-Anne knows each by name.

There are considerably fewer bodies at Gilchrist than at the other academies, though it doesn’t seem that way come 2 p.m. every weekday. That’s when students flood out of the buses that ferry them 15 miles from morning classes at Montverde Academy to Mission Inn Resort & Club, where it’s all golf, all the time.

At this point in the day, it’s a state of controlled chaos. Students call across the practice facilities to one another in an array of languages and scatter around the golf facilities. Gilchrist frequents the place, roaming among a group of swing coaches – whom he selects, trains and meets with daily to ensure continuity – and patrols the range, addressing every kid by name.

Gilchrist has created a haven for students, particularly internationals, in which a coterie of professionals helps develop not only a golfer but an athlete and a person. “They call me the forefather of junior golf, especially in an academy setting,” he said in his thick South African accent, and it’s true. In 1995, as lead instructor at IMG, he started the idea of producing a well-rounded athlete in an academy setting, then moved to IJGA nine years later. He has been at Mission Inn, running his own smaller academy, since 2008.

Gilchrist isn’t looking to expand his academy beyond 100 students any time soon. It would change the philosophy too much.

“Academies prepare them for college, and college prepares them for the pros,” he said.

• • •

Train like a champion. That’s the motto around Mission Inn, and there are similar slogans at IMG and IJGA. The premise seems logical enough; a certain amount of time, dedication and practice is required to hone a skill.

But how much training is too much? Haney conceded that academy students “certainly run the risk of burnout. But if you’re going to be any good at anything in life, you have to be extremely passionate and dedicated.”

Indeed, the academy experience isn’t for everyone. Maureen Fitzgerald and her son, Matthew Teesdale, of Ambler, Pa., alleged consumer fraud in a lawsuit filed last September, claiming that Haney did not deliver on promises of personal instruction at his Hilton Head academy. They maintained that Haney, Tiger Woods’ former swing coach, spent a total of 7 minutes’ instruction with Teesdale, then 18, who had paid $30,000 plus other fees to enroll in 2009-10. The lawsuit was settled earlier this year, Haney said. (The family did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.)

“We feel good about our academy and what it provides,” Haney said. “Obviously, there was a disagreement.”

Teesdale’s case raised a legitimate question, however: Why attend an academy? If this experience is so valuable, shouldn’t the academy graduate be the most successful player at every level?

Said Price, the IMG instructor: “It’s a simple case of, statistically, there are very few who reach the top of the pyramid.”

Many juniors cobble together their own stables of coaches at home, but that environment can lack the main appeal of academies: constant, intense competition among similarly ambitious peers. Such conditions cannot be re-created in many other countries, or even at local munis, hence the heavily international populations at academies. IJGA graduate Stephanie Meadow moved from Northern Ireland to Hilton Head Island with her parents in 2006, and six years later is one of the top 10 players in women’s college golf. The Alabama sophomore seems poised for success on the pro circuit, too, having won five tournaments in less than two years with the Crimson Tide. The transition from academy to college life, she said, has been seamless.

“A lot of people are shocked when you come to college, how you have class and then you have to hurry out to the course and practice,” said Meadow, 20. “But I’d been doing that for four years already.”

From a college coach’s standpoint, recruiting academy players is about more than preparation. “I don’t shy away from recruiting academy kids, but I also don’t target them,” said Jamie Green, the head men’s coach at Duke. “I think it’s a personal thing. You just need to find the right personality that fits your program and your university.”

Assuming incoming students can structure their own days – and deal with some of the added free time that college life affords – having an academy-trained player on the roster can seem more like bringing in a sophomore than a freshman, Green said. That’s beneficial, of course, but the stark reality remains that once in college, it’s the player’s responsibility to maximize his or her talent.

Said Haney: “Our goal isn’t to produce touring pros. If that was the case, they wouldn’t go to school at all. We’re trying to create a well-rounded person: good education, good golf education and help you grow as a person.”

The results can inspire. Last month, Sun Wongwaiwate phoned home to Thailand at his usual time and delivered good news to his parents. His lone year at Haney’s IJGA, with the long hours and sacrifices, produced the desired result: Wongwaiwate has received a golf scholarship to Campbell University, in Buies Creek, N.C., where he’ll start this fall.

For him, the system worked.

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