Golf school trains teens in swings, life

One by one, they file off the bus with their backpacks and school books, smiling and pushing each other like any group of high schoolers finished with class for the day.

However, these teens have hours of course work left this afternoon—along with sand shots, drives and reading putts.

They are enrolled in the International Junior Golf Academy, a facility that blends university preparatory courses with intensive, high-level golf instruction from former pro golfers. Not that there’s much choice but to practice and train; the mainland is a half-hour ferry ride away through the Calibogue Sound.

“It might sound like Alcatraz, but it’s not that,” said Charlie Hoyle, a 17-year-old student from Britain in his second year at the academy.

The school was founded in 1995 by Ray Travaglione, who grew up in Brooklyn playing and caddying on city courses. He had a successful career on Wall Street before sinking much of his savings into the long-held dream of a golf school.
How much did he have to invest?

“Let’s just say it took everything I had at one point,” he said.

Travaglione modeled the school after the success of tennis academies, such as Nick Bollettieri’s, which has developed Grand Slam winners including Andre Agassi and Maria Sharapova.

Travaglione liked nearby Hilton Head Island, one of the country’s top golf locations and home of the USPGA Tour’s MCI Classic at Harbour Town Golf Links. So began the slow, time-consuming process of convincing parents to send their children to an island off the coast of South Carolina to become scratch golfers.

“At the time it was fairly innovative, fairly risky,” Travaglione said.

He says he started with a handful of teens whose parents “believed the story”.

By the school’s fifth year, the academy had earned a reputation for combining academics with golf—not necessarily to scorch the U.S. PGA or LPGA tours, but to earn golf scholarships to college.

A year ago, Gary Gilchrist, a former professional who taught American rising stars Michelle Wie and Paula Creamer at the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, became the IJGA’s golf director. Gilchrist liked the focus on the total person: Helping train a student’s mind as well as his swing.

“The thing is it’s so exciting to do this,” he says.

There are about 125 students from 16 countries. Fulltime students are housed in guest cottages along Daufuskie Island’s shore. They attend class at the Heritage Academy, then work on their golf for three hours each afternoon.

Along with stance and grip come lessons on health and life.

Sports psychologist Stephen Russo helps the teens with issues such as blocking out distractions and making smart choices.

“Some of you have been here two or three years,” he tells about three dozen students, “and you’ve gotten tremendously better”.

That’s been the case for Hoyle, who has lowered his handicap from an 11 to a 3 during his time at the academy. “It’s just a really good sort of atmosphere,” said Hoyle, who hopes to earn a golf scholarship to college.

All the tools to improve are on the island. The teaching staff includes former pros, including Hugh Royer III, who spent several years on the U.S. PGA Tour. Royer says if some place like the academy existed when he was a teen, “I wouldn’t be here, I would be a multimillionaire playing on tour.”

The students disperse to two island courses after class. There are instruction weeks to work on technique and style, and competition weeks as students prepare for events on the International Junior Golf Tour, in which academy students play tournaments at Harbour Town and the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass.

Gilchrist showed one group the proper backswing, while Royer worked with another group by the putting green.

“Come on, concentrate, people,” he called as teenage minds wandered.

Ana Johnson (17) is in her second year at IJGA. She says she would like to design courses or take part in the industry in some other way.

Her game, though, might force her to think again. Shooting over 100 on her high school golf team, Johnson has brought that down to the high 70s here.

She likes the secluded spot to train and study but acknowledges the academy “was a lot of sacrifice because I gave up a normal life”.

There are supervised outings to malls and movies. “We do things like paintball,” Hoyle said.

Another American, Ben Lasso (16) thinks the students mesh well since they share the same goal of improvement. Lasso has brought his handicap down to a 3 in his two years at the school.

“This is a great place to be, since golf is everything I do or want to do,” he said.

The academy is not for everyone. A full-year’s tuition is $34 000, and the seclusion does not suit everyone, Gilchrist says.

“I think personally, it has been a sacrifice,” Lasso said. “But to me it’s worth it.”

The academy is building a practice facility and dorm space for 200 students on the island. Travaglione says he’s in negotiations on a West Coast satellite school and to bring other instruction in baseball or soccer to his campus. - Sapa-AP