The Golf Digest Guide to what could be the best four years of your life
By Madeline MacClurg
Illustrations by Lucas Varela
A lot of junior golfers dream about playing in the American college system – travelling to top courses, training in state-of-the-art facilities, getting keys to the magic gear closet – but it has become increasingly competitive to earn a spot on a university roster. In 2020, only 6 percent of male high school golfers went on to play in college, down from 10 percent a decade ago. For female golfers, the trend is similar. With 3.4 million juniors now playing golf in the United States (a 36-percent increase since the pandemic) coaches have an even larger pool to recruit from. Throw in the skewed perspectives that can result from social-media comparisons, and it is understandable that more high schoolers are feeling anxious about their chances.
How do you really know if you have what it takes to play in college?
Junior Golf Hub is an educational resource and online community for kids, their parents and college coaches. It recently conducted a study of 900 junior golfers who signed a National Letter of Intent. Across all collegiate divisions (DI, DII, DIII, NAIA and NJCAA), the study found that the scoring average for boys was 73 to 78. For girls, the average was 76 to 85. Mind you, for many coaches, a scoring average comprises results from multi-round local amateur and state golf association events, not high school or country club tournaments. If this sounds intimidating, Rick Dowling, the general manager of Junior Golf Hub, says to relax.
“If you’re a boy and you can break 90, you’ll have opportunities,” he says. “For girls, I would say it’s similar, maybe breaking 100.” The key is finding a program where your scoring average is comparable to those of current players. Schools with smaller enrollments in areas not known for golf have teams they want to build. However, remember that college tournaments are played on tougher courses from longer distances with more difficult setups.
“Potential recruits will look at scores from tournaments, and they’ll see college players shooting 72 or 75 and say, ‘Boy, I can do that,’” says Josh Hillman, head coach of the Williams College men’s golf team. “Maybe they can do that in the middle of the summer when they’re playing golf every day in good conditions, but when you get to September and October in the north-east, you should factor in wind, temperatures dropping, chilly rain and how the ball reacts to these elements. A 74 in the [autumn] is like a 70 or 69 mid-summer.”
Being realistic is just as critical as playing in the right events. When setting your summer schedule in high school, choose at least two multi-day events, and give yourself time to play in a few small events leading up to bigger tournaments. Most coaches are looking for juniors with a thoughtful, well-organised schedule that progresses like a college season.
“A misconception is that you have to spend a lot of money travelling to find the best players to compete against,” says Anne Walker, head coach of Stanford University’s women’s golf team. “One of the cool things about golf is that you’re just playing the course. If you tee it up in a field that’s maybe not as strong, that’s fine, but then go beat that field by 15. Coaches will notice that.”
Hillman likes it when potential recruits have a tournament schedule with a “big picture” because it demonstrates goal-setting abilities and work ethic, which are among the intangibles that can encourage a coach to look past any higher scores.
“That’s what recruiting and evaluation is for,” says Scott Limbaugh, the men’s coach at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. “You might see players with speed, but they’re like a wild horse. They’re not disciplined. They don’t know how to flight their ball. They don’t know how to miss on the correct side. They don’t know a lot of the little things, but they’re not huge things. Often it doesn’t take long. You get around the coaches and other really good players, and you just skyrocket.”
Coaches look at launch-monitor data and swing-speed numbers to gauge a junior’s potential. Depending on the level of competition, college coaches are looking for male players with driver swing speeds of 105 to 115 miles per hour or more and female players with speeds of 95 to 105mph. Coaches might also be curious about your athletic history beyond golf, particularly in team sports, because it usually means you are coachable and will transition well to college golf.
“I like multi-sport athletes,” says Emily Glaser, head coach of the University of Florida’s women’s team. “They have the attributes that make for good team players and have been involved in something that’s bigger than them.”
Matt Thurmond, head coach of Arizona State’s men’s golf team, says he can intuit a lot from a player’s body language during a round. “You can tell by the way they talk and carry themselves that they believe in themselves and that they’re going to do what it takes to get where they want to go. I want guys who are competitors, who believe in themselves, and who know how to win regardless of the resources.”
Kelley Hester, head coach of Clemson University’s women’s golf team, says she likes to see players who can overcome adversity, whether it’s on the course or off. College golfers travel a lot, usually missing the most classes of all athletes, so they must be tough enough to handle that kind of stress and have the drive and responsibility to stay on top of their studies.
An effective way to demonstrate the passion and commitment coaches want is to make it clear you have done research on the school, the coaching staff and the golf team.
“It means a lot when you can tell that your school is their No.1 choice,” says Julie Garner, head coach of the Rollins College women’s golf team.
While researching universities, know that most college golf teams have eliminated “walk-ons” (someone with no regular status). Many players believe they’ll have the chance to try out if they can’t find a school that’s a good fit, but this isn’t necessarily the case. If there are walk-ons, they are often preferred walk-ons that were recruited.
Ultimately, having determination is something that cannot be taught, and it might be the most important quality to have as a college golfer. There are plenty of steps you can take in high school to improve your game, but if you don’t have the resolve and passion that it takes to play at the next level, coaches will see that.
When it comes to playing golf in an American college, you must want it with conviction. If you think you do, read on.
Tips for talking to coaches and other best practices for applying.
By Sam Weinman
he easiest path to college golf has coaches flocking to you with scholarships in hand. It’s also the least likely. More often, players should expect to take at least the first step. If you’re not quite sure what that means, don’t worry. Most college golfers didn’t have a clue when they started out, either.
A good first exercise is to research and construct a list of universities you want to consider. How big a university do you want? Where is it located? What is its academic profile and what are your areas of specialty? These are just some of the qualities worth weighing before asking if the practice range has grass or mats.
Casting a wide net is encouraged, but so is getting a sense of where you might fit in. An often-cited formula for prospective college golfers is to select schools where your scores equal those of the fifth-best golfer in the team’s line-up (most college tournaments have teams of five players), but Dennis Hillman, director of player development for the Golf Performance Centre in Connecticut, says even that can be misleading.
Because most coaches care only about multi-round tournaments, high school golf or 18-hole club events are rarely part of the equation. College golf scores are expected to be higher owing to more difficult course setups and the less favourable conditions of autumn and spring tournaments. “They want kids who are shooting a couple of strokes lower than their fifth player,” says Hillman, who was an All-American college golfer at the University of Tulsa. “They’re trying to improve their program.”
Another way to gauge opportunity is to study the graduating classes of the players on the team’s roster to find out the number of players four years ahead of you. If you’re a high school junior set to graduate in 2025, and the college roster has five juniors set to graduate that same year, that means a coach may have several spots to fill in your recruiting class. Conversely, if the coach has only one, that means competition might be stiff.
Once you have your list, it’s common for high school golfers to reach out to coaches via e-mail. “You’re just letting the coach know you exist,” says Katie Miles, the former women’s golf coach at Georgetown University who founded a company, Golf Globally, that helps junior golfers in their college search.
Having a standard template is OK, but Miles advocates for personalising the e-mail to show interest in and knowledge about the program. Otherwise, stick to the basics – a summary of your golf and academic background, a résumé and a sense of your upcoming schedule. Many players send swing videos, which need not be professionally shot, but give a sense of a player’s general ability. “As a former coach I would get 15 e-mails every day from recruits, so you want to keep it short and sweet,” Miles says.
More important than what is said in an introductory e-mail is what you say in the next one, and the one after that. For coaches who are inundated with feelers from prospective players, persistence is a way to break through. “Unless they’re seeing repeated interest, they might not be paying close attention to you,” Miles says. “You might have a coach who’s sort of passively following your progress, and then you do something amazing, and you send an e-mail with an update, and then they’re interested all of a sudden.”
Like much of the college selection process, additional resources are available to prospective golfers at a cost. A consultant such as Miles, for instance, works with students one-on-one during the selection and outreach process. Another organisation, College Golf Experience, hosts showcase camps with top college coaches featuring simulated practice sessions and tournament rounds so coaches can evaluate players in different settings. Another opportunity is the Kerry Cup, which gathers 64 high school-age golfers in Waterville, Ireland, for clinics and competition alongside Ivy League and high-end Division III coaches. The week-long experience costs about $US5,000, excluding airfares, and allows players and families the type of casual interaction with coaches that paints a richer picture.
“It’s so data-driven now, and coaches can go online and find out what kids have done since they were 12, but they get to know the kid behind the score,” says Kerry Cup founder Michael Maher.
As much as college coaches are intrigued by what you’ve done, just as important is where they think you’re headed. Miles and Hillman recommend players highlight what they’re working on and the steps they’re taking. “A ton of kids can play, so they’re looking for intangibles,” Hillman says. “What kind of teammate will you be? How do you handle adversity? Are you a quitter or a fighter? How are you going to represent the school? You can show a lot of this through effort and communication.”
If a coach asks a player to send updates, that merely means the coach is open to hearing more. A key distinction is when the coach requests what Miles describes as a “call to action” – whether it’s setting up a phone call or asking the player to visit or to submit academic information that gives a sense of whether the player would qualify academically.
“Unless there’s a specific call to action, the recruitment probably is not as serious as the junior golfer or their parents might think,” Miles says, “because if you’re truly being recruited by a coach, you know it. You can feel it.”
7 first-year myths: Realities you don’t learn until you get to campus
By Keely Levins
Myth 1: Qualifying is fair
It’s reasonable to assume that the players who shoot the lowest scores in intra-team qualifying for a college tournament will always play in that tournament, but it can get complicated and emotional. Depending on the team, qualifying is generally two or three rounds to determine the five golfers who will play in an upcoming tournament. If a team is small or the top five players are obvious, qualifying might not happen at all.
Players with a pattern of playing great in qualifying and shooting big numbers in tournaments will often sit out. If a player performed well at a tournament the year before and didn’t qualify for it the next season, he might get an opportunity. A coach may even be persuaded to reward a player who puts in extra work.
Advocating for yourself can help, says Matt Ariza, who played at Division I Lamar University for two years before transferring to Division III Piedmont. Ariza would go to the coach if he thought he deserved a shot he wasn’t getting. “It showed that maybe I cared more than some of the other guys who just accepted that the best number always plays. Sometimes you gotta fight for it.”
Myth 2: Academic choices are yours
If you’re looking at a university’s academic catalogue thinking you can take whichever classes you want, get ready for disappointment. At a competitive Division I program, the practice schedule makes it nearly impossible for golfers to take classes with labs because labs are usually in the afternoons. Golfers typically don’t major in sciences. Lindsey McCurdy played at Southern Methodist University and intended to major in graphic design, but that subject had labs, so she went with advertising instead. International relations was of interest to Kendra Dalton at Brigham Young University, but that required a language, and languages were offered only in the early mornings, which conflicted with practice. At less rigorous programs, players have more flexibility but not without difficulty. A golfer might be hustling to the course after labs even on qualifying days.
Myth 3: Juniors and seniors fill rosters
If you’re entering a program as a freshman hoping to play a few tournaments among a roster of juniors and seniors, you might be surprised to find out many of the older players aren’t keeping their games sharp. Realising their playing days are winding down, some older student-athletes begin investing more in their professional futures, choosing the library over the range or a summer internship over tournaments. Conversely, a roster with first-year players and sophomores might represent a more competitive team in which to land starts.
Myth 4: You’ll have a normal social life
College golfers can definitely relate to the common dilemma of student-athletes: “School, sports and social life: pick two.”
Golfers who want to party will find a way to do it, but many teams have rules like no drinking 24 hours before a tournament. “Team dinner the night before a tournament was usually the way captains would make sure everyone was staying in for the night,” says Drew Stern, who played at Division III Dickinson.
Golfers have limited off-days to socialise. If your off day is Monday, you’re trying to be social on a Sunday night when most of the student body is not. Team camaraderie is one of the great things about collegiate golf, but you’re spending a lot of time with the same people. Many golfers make a point to live with friends outside of their team and join Greek life or clubs to make non-golf friends.
Myth 5: Getting along with your coach is all that matters
If you like the coach, the campus, the academic offerings and the teammates you’ve met, chances are you’re feeling good about going to that university, but meshing with a coach’s personality isn’t the same as getting along with his or her coaching style. How structured are practices? How collaborative is the coach? Does the coach like to tinker with swings or refuse to touch them? “My coach was playing-oriented,” McCurdy says, “but I was a practiser growing up.” When McCurdy was in a slump and wanted to fix her swing on the range, her coach sent her to the course. McCurdy says she was ultimately a better player for it.
When meeting a coach during the recruiting process, ask about his or her coaching style, and then decide if it works for you.
Myth 6: Missing class isn’t a big deal
Making the travel team might lead you to assume that any class you miss is approved, but that’s not always the case. At Lamar, Ariza’s coach e-mailed the professors on his behalf in advance, and Ariza had access to as many tutors as he needed. However, when Ariza transferred to Piedmont, he failed to realise he needed to take control. “I went to the first three tournaments without telling anybody where I was. It was a mess. There were a lot of explanations and a lot of apologies.”
Conflict can be avoided by talking to professors about upcoming absences to avoid surprises. Nevertheless, professors aren’t always copacetic. Missing an exam, for example, requires a solution, like taking the exam on the road with your coach as your proctor.
Myth 7: Golf is an individual sport
As a junior golfer, you get comfortable doing what you think is best, but in college, golf is a team sport where you relinquish control. For many, having practice buddies leads to learning, with teammates as motivators. Being on a team isn’t for everyone, and often players have an adjustment period.
“You have to recognise there’s always room to get better, and you need to enjoy that opportunity more than complaining and whining that you’re not playing or whatever it is,” Dalton says. “It takes some maturity to understand that perspective.”
Players transition well to the team atmosphere when they realise having other players around makes them better and that teammates make the pursuit of good golf a less lonely endeavour.
What winners do: Advice from 8 PGA Tour Pro’s on navigating these pivotal years
By Luke Kerr-Dineen
ithout a college draft in golf, players who harbour professional aspirations have no obligation to attend college. For years, pundits have speculated about when top junior golfers might begin to forgo the college experience as they do in some other sports.
Yet golf remains unique. It rewards the kind of rounded skill-set college provides. There are exceptions, of course, but often the game’s best players are those who spent their college years refining their games, forming competitive bonds with teammates and earning degrees. It’s a way of maturing the mind and having a back-up plan if professional dreams aren’t realised.
With that in mind, Golf Digest asked a variety of PGA Tour players who each earned their degree a question: how can future college golfers savour and maximise the college experience?
Embrace morning classes
“Figure out your schedule early and stay on top of it. I’d book an 8am class every morning and then go work out. I’d also try to leave Fridays open. You may not like it, but if you can schedule a few morning classes, you’ll feel like you have all the time in the world. Enjoy the experience as much as you can. When you turn around after those four years, you have no time. Don’t waste it.” – Jon Rahm, Arizona State University (2016, Communications)
Get out of your comfort zone
“Try to get comfortable being uncomfortable because you’re going to be uncomfortable. Everything changes. You’re away from home, you’re trying to qualify for tournaments and you may not be qualifying as much as you want. Every team is different, but my team had one team practice a week, and the rest was on our own. That was different for me; I had to learn how to structure my practice. It took me a little bit to get used to. Whether you’re playing on the team or not, keep trying to get better even when it feels uncomfortable.” – Sepp Straka, University of Georgia (2016, Business Management)
Keep golf and academics in balance
“I went to a tough academic school, but I learned that there was a limit to what you can do between school, golf and having a social life. Sometimes you might have to sacrifice school for golf. Sometimes you might sacrifice golf for school. Trying to push yourself to do everything at once can be detrimental. Pick your spots, and be smart about it.” – Cameron Young, Wake Forest University (2019, Economics)
Don’t try to re-invent your game
“College golfers these days have so much more at their disposal: time, coaches, facilities, things like TrackMan. Everybody likes having some fun in college, too, right? College golfers have every tool they need to get good. If you’re serious about being successful, learn how to use those things and not get overwhelmed. You don’t need to re-invent your swing or your game to make your team. Learning how to use those tools to refine what you do well is much more important than trying to become somebody else.” – J.T. Poston, Western Carolina University (2015, Finance)
Be disciplined with your time
“Be careful with your time management. Playing college golf is almost like having two full-time jobs. Travelling can make things stressful. There’ll be times when you miss almost a week of school and return feeling really behind and stressed. It may take you two weeks to catch up. Being efficient with your time when that happens will define your ability to be successful.” – Brian Harman, University of Georgia (2009, Finance)
Sacrifice (some) fun for work
“I was a walk-on. I knew I needed to graduate so that I could get a job.
I didn’t think about turning pro until my senior year. I wasn’t as naturally talented as my teammates, but I took the attitude that I’m going to out-work them at practice and in class. That healthy competition pushes you to be better. Sometimes it means missing out on some fun things, but I got my reward in the end.” – Hayden Buckley, University of Missouri (2018, Health Science)
Learn from your teammates
“I don’t care how good or bad your teammates are or whether they’re on the travelling team or not, you can learn from each one. College gives you that ability to get to know a bunch of guys who love golf and be surrounded by them every single day. Learn what they do best in their games, ask them about it and figure out how to do it yourself.” – Collin Morikawa, University of California, Berkeley (2019, Business Administration)
Take care of your body
“If I could do it over, I’d pay much closer attention to fitness: mobility, flexibility, core strength, glute strength. When you’re young, you think you’re invincible. I didn’t do much before rounds, and in no way did I take care of my body after rounds. That stuff starts to catch up to you as you age. The more of a priority you make it when you’re younger, the better you’ll be later on.” – Denny McCarthy, University of Virginia (2015, Anthropology)