Tuesday, October 20, 2009

American Training

Over the weekend, we debated the merits of playing golf at an American university. Many of the top Belgian junior golfers are now away playing full-time across the Atlantic. Four alone attend Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.

Are they benefiting from the full-time training? The reviews back in Belgium are mixed. Sam’s coach Jean-Christian Lassagne says American golf coaches expect top results – and put an inordinate amount of pressure on students to achieve. “They say, ‘hey you hit the ball well, so you should score well,” he says. “But it is not always so simple.”

Sam’s sport psychologist, Emilee, who spent a year at Stetson University in Florida, said she missed having her Belgian-based teacher with her. “Many of us make the mistake in believing that the American coach can help us with our swing and other technical issues,” she recalls. “They cannot. You need to keep your old teacher.”
Bottom line: many Europeans seem to doubt whether four years spent in America playing golf at the university pays off in better players.

At the same time, the prospects that stay back in Europe treat water. After they become 18, and start attending continental universities, the Belgian golf federations stop subsidizing their training. The best prospects turn pro. But they struggle to make their mark. So the jury remains out.

For Sam, a native English speaker, the debate remains unresolved. Golf-wise, it would be best for him to attend an American university. But he wants to study as much as play, and he is targeting institutions with a good mixture of golf and academics. This weekend, he met with psychologist Emilee and his coach Lassagne to review the past season and prepare for the next one. He also finished a long paper on the Cold War for his history class and took the SATs.

If he scores well, he will consider applying to American universities. If he does not, he probably will end up attending a UK institution – where the golf may not be quite as good as in the U.S., but where he will be able, at minimum cost, to get a top-flight education.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ending the Season on a High Note

The 2009 golf season is over.

After four months of solid, almost non-stop tournament play, Sam competed over the weekend in his final event - a Grand Prix in the French resort of Le Touquet. It's a great tournament on a great links course. Famed architect Henry Colt designed the layout in 1931 and he created a challenge - a 7,000 yard monster.

Sam played well and I was delighted, after all my health problems, to caddy him. In the first round, the skies were blue and the wind calm. Sam started out with three bogeys and then drove his ball deep into the woods. Fortunately, he was able to pitch out and earned only a bogey. Then, on the ninth hole, the hardest on the course, he made it ack to even par by rolling a 225 yard three iron second shot to five feet, and draining the birdie putt.

The wind picked up on the back nine, but even so, Sam stayed sharp. He putted well and recovered even after the disappointment of seeing four putts lip out. His final 74, two over par, put him in fourth place, only two shots from the lead. "I should have been two under if my putts had gone in," he added.

The next day, players out in the morning enjoyed a nice autumn sunshine. When Sam teed off at 1 p.m., the skies had turned gray and the wind had begun to howl. The course was going to be a monster. Sam's playing partner was his 16-year old friend Thomas Detry, who had enjoyed a wonderful season, winning the Dutch Boys International and qualifying for the European Tour event, the KLM Open. Thomas had helped Sam navigate Royal St. Georges at the British Boys. But now he seemed tired of golf. "I had a lot of homework and too much golf over the summer," he complained. "I wish I wasn't here." From the start, Thomas failed concentrate.

In contrast, Sam still seemed to enjoy himself. He wanted to be out on the course and he showed it by trying. The long par three second hole had caused many players, unable to hold the green with their tee shot, to double or even triple bogey. Sam's tee shot rolled through the green, but he chipped close and parred. He again was even par going into the fourth hole Even though he was not as sharp as in the first round, he found himself even par going into the fourth hole. But his second shot, a three wood screecher, headed straight toward the green, only to plug into a trap. What should have been an eagle or even birdie turned into a bogey.

In addition to the blowing wind, rain began falling. Sam struggled and by the time he reached the 11th hole, he was five over par. His playing partner Thomas Detry was even worse, six over. But officials told them that all the scores were high and that they still had a chance. Thomas still did not seem to care. Sam rebounded and made several excellent pars. Several times, he needed three woods to reach the greens of par fours. By the 16th hole, the rain had turned into a true tempest. Thomas took a quintuple 9 and finished with a horrendous 87. Sam continued making pars, even threatening several times to gain birdies, and finished six over. Unfortunately, some of the scores earlier in the day were low and he ended up only fifth. He was disappointed. "I really wanted to win," he said.

And yet I could sense that he was pleased. He had proved to himself that he belonged with the best amateur players in Europe. He had played for the Belgian national team. He had enjoyed himself and the golf had helped him grow up. Now he has to concentrate on his studies and prepare for college. His goal remains, not to become a golf professional, but to enjoy golf and leverage it for a rich, varied and fulfilled life. I am proud.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What's Happened to Them?

Sam returned home last night from the Netherlands with a smile. He won his two singles matches both by two and one scores. His Belgian team finished second. He returned home only at 7 p.m. and had three hours of homework, leaving little time for basking in glory and chit-chatting.

As my son played, I watched over the weekend the exploits of some of my Shooting For Tiger characters. Alexis Thompson, the explosive 12-year old in the book, is growing up fast. I remember her with her painted face at the Canon Cup while I was researching my book. The picture that I took of her on the right appeals to me because she was then just a kid having fun.

At age 14, the home-schooled high school freshman from Florida shot 65 and 69 in the first two rounds to lead the Navistar LPGA tournament. Although she faltered on Sunday and finished 13th, her success shows once again how girls mature faster than boys on the golf course.

This precious maturity cuts two ways. The temptation mounts on teenagers to turn pro and cash in. But the danger of burn out a la Michelle Wie remains everpresent. Thompson and her father Scott seem to understand the dangers. They always told me that Alexis would finish high school and go to college. Will her success accelerate that schedule?

Another Shooting for Tiger character making headlines is Peter Uihlein. Over the summer, he won all four of his matches in helping lead the U.S. to victory over Great Britain and Ireland in the Walker Cup. Uihlein was also quarterfinalist at the U.S. Amateur. When I watched Uihlein compete as a junior, I never doubted his talent, but often questioned his matured. Maybe he's finally growing up.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Back on the Course

I finally made it back to the course - to caddy my daughter Julia.

Sam is away in Amsterdam playing for the Belgian national team. I'm still recuperating from my operation and cannot swing a club. But I enjoyed walking with my 10 year old daughter.

Julia never has been as excited as her older brother about athletics and golf. Sam was a natural. When Julia first swung a club, she seemed awkward. But she has persevered and is beginning to show real talent. She whacks a five iron about 120 yards. Her chipping, still weak, is improving. Best of all, she plays with giant smile on her face, displaying real pleasure when she hits a good shot.

When Sam leaves for college, I think I have found my new golf partner.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

College Deception

When I researched Shooting for Tiger, I was struck by the insular way in which American college coaches went about recruiting for their golf teams. They focused on AJGA tournaments in America and the small group of players who managed to play in the elite Invitational tournaments. I chronicled a season of this mating between coaches and top teen players.

Sam's experience shows just how difficult it is to break into this closed world. He played in Europe this past summer, not in the AJGA. When he wrote several dozen coaches expressing interest in attending their college, most did not even bother to answer his email. The few who did said their recruiting already was finished. Even though he is a late bloomer and a good student, it is becoming clear that no top American university will even look at him.

American universities say they want to become international and recruit around the globe. For the most part, however, they fail to live up to this goal. Sam looks set to attend university in the UK.