News & Opinion

Junior golf offers varied paths to success

First of two parts

How much does it cost to raise a champion? What do you have to spend to get a kid good enough to earn a golf scholarship to an NCAA Division I college? Division II or III? Is there a Division IV? And do I really need to go broke when she’s 15 to avoid going broke when she’s 18?

Question is, are these even the right questions?

Dollar-sign-studded articles on the cost of youth sports are as perennial as grandma’s roses, and golf gets its share. Higher education’s staggering cost plus stories of success among a few young players coming out of college programs encourage parents across many economic strata to view golf as a light at the end of college’s dark fiscal tunnel. Build a fine player with flexibility to spare, suppleness of muscle, the short-game touch of a surgeon and thick mental armor, and into Oklahoma State he or she goes on a full ride – then off to the tours. Right?

Seldom. The death of Q-School in 2013 meant that nearly all new PGA Tour players, including big men on campus or the practice range, would have to do some developmental time on the Tour. Sure, the occasional phenom can win enough money on sponsor exemptions to get a big-tour card immediately after leaving school, but that’s rare. Think Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm. Otherwise, get your at-bats in AAA.

Suddenly, the tens of thousands that can be spent during (and before) the teen years on equipment, lessons, junior-tournament travel, swing coaching, mental coaching, and even tutors can become a longer-odds bet on professional golf success. And the scholarship itself isn’t a done deal either, even with nearly 2,300 men’s and women’s programs spread across the NCAA’s three divisions and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. That number comes from College Golf Scholarship Advisors, a company that “helps junior golfers achieve their college golf goals,” according to its website. It bears remembering, though, that Division III schools cannot offer athletic scholarships.

Things may be even tougher for young women. A recent story in Golfweek quotes women's college golf coaches on the scarcity of full-ride scholarships for their players, as well as funds that go unused because some awardees leave programs when it's too late on the academic calendar to replace them and reallocate the money.

How to change this seemingly immutable math?

By changing the definition of success. Perhaps more than other youth sports, golf offers numerous ways to build a life in the game without earning your keep in the birdies-pars-bogeys line.

Many organizations serve youth golf. The American Junior Golf Association, one of the leaders in the field, gets frequent credit as a proving ground for young touring professionals. Indeed, more than 300 of its alumni have won more than 830 times on the PGA and LPGA tours. But the nonprofit’s mission statement speaks not of tour glory but about “the overall growth of young men and women who aspire to earn college scholarships through competitive junior golf.” To that end, the AJGA ran 121 tournaments in 2017. (Perspective: That’s nearly three times what the PGA Tour does.) The desire to gain entry into those events draws a membership of 6,900 juniors.

There’s some math for you. If only 300 of those have gone on to the two most famous tours since the AJGA started 40 years ago, it’s easy to see that the AJGA, for all of its benefits, isn’t really a developmental league in the usual sense.

That’s why it’s also important to know stories like David Shaffer’s. He’s an AJGA alumnus who almost wasn’t. Growing up near Boston, he played all the right local and regional tournaments – but struck out consistently when he applied to play in AJGA tournaments. When he was 15, he finally got a foothold as an alternate at an AJGA event at The Club at New Seabury (Mass.) on Cape Cod. He got in, played well and finished in the top 3. That was good enough to get him an exemption for the following season.

“It had become clear to me that I wanted to play golf on a scholarship,” Shaffer said. A top-10 finish at a Texas AJGA event against a field that included future PGA Tour stars Charles Howell III and Matt Kuchar got Shaffer noticed by coaches, and that led to a scholarship. Northwestern, Richmond and Georgetown reached out. Shaffer chose Northwestern and played all four years (1998-2001). Luke Donald was one of his teammates.

Then, it was decision time. Shaffer took stock.

“I peaked in my sophomore and junior years,” he said. “I wanted to enter the working world and not play for a living. Besides, I watched some of my friends try to turn pro. It seemed a little bit miserable, trying to make it. My goal became to merge my passions: golf and business.”

And so, he has. Shaffer is now vice president of marketing for Imperial Headwear, the 102-year-old hat company. Have things worked out according to the script in his youth golf dreams?

“I guess they have, yeah,” Shaffer said. “I knew I wanted to be around golf somewhere. It feels like it’s not work.”

Whether it feels like it or not, running tournaments takes a fair amount of work. Tommy Tangtiphaiboontana, now director of international competitions for the U.S. Golf Association, learned his craft as a sort of triple AJGA alumnus. He played in the tournaments alongside eventual pros Anthony Kim and Kevin Na, then became an AJGA intern, and then a paid staff member. Along the way, he learned his craft through opportunities and connections made in his youth golf career.

Tommy Tangtiphaiboontana (second from left), the USGA’s international competitions director, with championship-management colleagues (from left) Jeff Hall, USGA; Daniel Sommerville, R&A; and Ben Kimball, USGA

Tommy Tangtiphaiboontana (second from left), the USGA’s international competitions director, with championship-management colleagues (from left) Jeff Hall, USGA; Daniel Sommerville, R&A; and Ben Kimball, USGA

“The AJGA, they give you so much responsibility right away,” Tangtiphaiboontana said. “It’s basically, Here’s a budget; go do it. You get a crash course in organization and negotiation. Oh, and in the Rules [of Golf].”

Tangtiphaiboontana’s path followed some unusual twists and turns engineered by fate. He was valedictorian of his class at a prestigious high school in Long Beach, Calif., and he wanted to walk on to the golf team at Stanford – but he didn’t get in. Cal Berkeley said yes for engineering, but the course load would have made golf impossible – and for Tommy, that was unthinkable. Yale offered great academics and time for golf, so Tangtiphaiboontana leaped.

While he was at Yale, Tommy’s parents were killed in a car crash. They were in the front seat, and his sister Jennifer and friend were in the back. They were on the way home from an AJGA event in which Jennifer had played. Jennifer and her friend survived, and now Tommy took over as his sister’s chaperone at AJGA events. He met everyone involved in tournament operations and discovered what he wanted to do. His response to family tragedy – that is, taking care of his sister and her golf game – set him on the path to a career in tournament management.

“I wanted to stay in the game of golf somehow,” he said. He knows that not every talented youth golfer makes that choice, of course. But success has many faces. Tangtiphaiboontana’s sister, survivor of that awful accident and a skilled, determined player, went on to become an orthopedic surgeon specializing in trauma cases.

So how much does it cost to raise a champion? Depends what they’re playing for.

In Part 2 in Thursday’s Morning Read: What if you’re in golf, you have college dreams – but you’re not a skilled player?