News & Opinion

Elite juniors steer new route in recruiting

At 15 or 16, most boys are, in the words of Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer Bob Seger, “trying to lose those awkward teenage blues.” Not so with the youngest of the 156 lads in the international field at last week’s prestigious Western Junior Championship at Park Ridge Country Club, northwest of Chicago.

PARK RIDGE, Ill. – At 15 or 16, most boys are, in the words of Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Famer Bob Seger, “trying to lose those awkward teenage blues.”

Not so with the youngest of the 156 lads in the international field at last week’s prestigious Western Junior Championship at Park Ridge Country Club, northwest of Chicago.

William Mouw
CHARLES CHERNEY/WESTERN GOLF ASSOCIATION
William Mouw, 15, of Chino, Calif., who won the recent Western Junior, already has committed to attend Pepperdine.

CHARLES CHERNEY/WESTERN GOLF ASSOCIATION
William Mouw, 15, of Chino, Calif., who won the recent Western Junior, already has committed to attend Pepperdine.

Instead of spending their summers taking driver’s education or Snapchatting friends, these world-class golfers already know where they’re going to college.

William Mouw, 16, of Chino, Calif., who won the tournament by a record-tying eight shots, already has committed to Pepperdine. 

“My friend Andrew just got his permit, so he’s driving around now,” said Mouw, who already holds a driver’s license. “My friends can’t believe I committed to college after my freshman year. . . . God gave me a good talent in golf, and I found that out early. Now, I’m just playing as much as I can and as well as I can.”

Then there’s 15-year-old Australian Karl Vilips, who already has committed to Stanford. In a few years, he could be playing practice rounds with former diplomat Condoleezza Rice, a Stanford faculty member, at Augusta National.

“I wanted to get that thing [college decision] out of the way real fast and know where I was going and not have the pressure on me the next few years,” said Vilips, runner-up at the Western Junior. “Once I made that decision, everything kind of felt easy and not having the pressure of coaches watch me.”

Vilips, who was born in Melbourne, found out early that he was really good at golf. He started his own YouTube channel (https://www.youtube.com/user/KarlGolf) and began uploading his golf exploits “just for fun.” (He also has his own website:http://www.karlgolf.info/.) At 11, he moved to the U.S. to attend a golf academy. Today, he’s at Saddlebrook Prep in Wesley Chapel, Fla., north of Tampa. He shares a coach – Cameron McCormick, also an Aussie – with two-time major champion Jordan Spieth. At the Western Junior, a local youth was shooting video of Vilips for his YouTube channel.

The competition to recruit increasingly younger golfers won’t come as a surprise to those who follow the game closely. The top NCAA DI programs already are eyeing seventh- and eighth-graders.

Head coach Ryan Hybl, whose Oklahoma Sooners won the NCAA title last month at Rich Harvest Farms outside Chicago, agrees it’s extraordinary, but says he might be one of the culprits.

Hybl got a verbal commitment from Brad Dalke, one of his star players, at age 12. The mitigating circumstance was that Dalke’s family history with the Sooners made it improbable for anyone to envision the youngster going anywhere else.

“It made sense for our program because Brad’s whole family had gone to OU,” Hybl said. Still, he doesn’t necessarily like the trend.

“I’ve been seeing some very early commitments to schools lately, and that is very nerve-racking for me,” Hybl said. “It’s the way it is.”

Social media has accelerated the process.

“Instagram. Twitter. YouTube might get you a swing video, but our business is relationship-driven,” Hybl said. “Coaches can follow these kids. It maybe gets us more attached to them at a younger age. . . . You can see who they are through social media.”

Oregon coach Casey Martin, whose Ducks lost to Oklahoma in the NCAA finals after having won the 2016 national championship, said ranking systems provided by Junior Golf Scoreboard, Polo, and Golfweek magazine all help coaches learn about players earlier. Then they can go online and find out more.

“It’s mainly the elite-level kids that are committing super-early – the kids that would be can’t-miss-type prospects,” Martin said. “Most of the kids develop a little later and physically develop, and the bulk of the recruiting happens midway through their junior year in high school. Some of the elite ones are just too good. They’re worth tying up the scholarship early.”

Social media still is no substitute for boots on the ground. More coaches than ever will be fanning out to junior and amateur tournaments this summer.

“When I was playing in the late ’90s, you would see 10-15 coaches at an event,” Hybl said. “Now, you’ll see 50-100 coaches at tournaments.”

And unlike basketball or football, golf isn’t even a revenue sport.

Crazy.

Barry Cronin, a former golf writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, is media director for the John Deere Classic and head of Cronin Communications. He lives in Park Ridge, Ill. Email: bcronin@cronincommunications.com