Nine-year-old James Baker has a buttery backswing, a beautiful finish and a big fan in his mother, who stood behind him on the driving range one April morning pronouncing proudly, “Look at him. He’s the next Tiger Woods!”
A few slots down stood Jerry He, a rising star from China, feathering 3-woods into a cross-breeze. He swung in unison with the Hungarian junior national champion, Ben Palanzski.
Under the watchful eyes of coaches, and the weight of familial expectations, all three had come to the David Leadbetter Golf Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to hone their skills and set off on the road to who knows where.
Palanzski hooked an 8-iron, then shrugged nonchalantly, a la Vijay Singh. “Working on a swing change,” he said.
His coach, Kevin Collins, wasn’t worried. “He’s the real deal,” Collins said. “If he’s not ready to turn pro in three years, I haven’t done my job.”
What began as a passion passed down through generations has evolved into a multimillion dollar business, bolstered by academies, nurtured by colleges and sanctified by year-round tournaments from coast to coast.
“The world of junior golf is big and diverse,” says Mac Thayer, executive director of the Junior Golf Scoreboard, an online information service. “The key is to educate yourself and decide what’s right for you and your child.”
By any measure, the Leadbetter Academy is junior golf ramped up to full throttle. Of its 232 year-round students, more than half live on campus, sleeping in dorm rooms, attending classes and devoting at least four hours a day to golf. They work with swing gurus, sports psychologists, even media consultants, and work out in a training center worthy of Olympians. Earning a Tour card isn’t part of the promise, yet few full-time students enlist for such a commitment without at least a fleeting thought of future fame.
In little more than a decade, the Bradenton campus has produced such young stars as Sean O’Hair, David Gossett and reigning NCAA champion Jonathan Moore. But some critics view the academy as a kind of golf gulag and question whether the Leadbetter life, which runs $46,100 a year for a full-time boarder, also comes at the cost of well-roundedness.
Ted Meekma, senior V.P. at mega-agency and Leadbetter partner IMG, admits that “this is not for everyone.”
“It can be very competitive,” Meekma says. “But we’re also preparing them for things other than golf. Last I checked, the business world is pretty competitive too.”
When searching for a place to school their only child, Igor and Erika Palanzski looked no further than Leadbetter, even though it meant sending Ben overseas. “In my opinion, [Leadbetter] is the best place in junior golf,” says Igor Palanzski, a former pro tennis player. “I know how hard it is to concentrate on the proper path. You have to be prepared, both mentally and physically, to become a professional athlete, which is Ben’s dream.”
Ben landed at Leadbetter late last year. The plan was to live on campus. But after Ben and a dormmate squabbled, the family’s thinking changed. The Palanzskis now rent a house overlooking the academy’s 18-hole course. While Igor remains in Hungary teaching tennis, Erika, who speaks only limited English, looks after Ben, performing the kind of chef and chauffeur duties familiar to legions of soccer moms.
Ben’s days are like those of many athletic high school students, shifted into hyper-drive. He’s often up at sunrise to jog or stretch before heading to class at the Pendleton School, which operates inside the academy gates. He devotes himself to golf from early afternoon until dusk.
“I don’t go to parties and I don’t have a girlfriend,” Ben says. “But those things never really interested me anyway.”
On a recent morning, Ben sat in Mr. Reeves’ physical science class, his lanky frame splayed across his seat. While his teacher read a passage from a textbook on electromagnetic waves, Ben’s face, in typical teenage fashion, alternated between boredom and bemusement. The only physics that intrigue him deal with clubface position: his, it turned out, was shut at the top. His most pressing homework was to fix that.
“My mom would like me to go from here to college,” Ben said later. “But my dad and I have other ideas: I’m going to turn pro.”
In the past 13 years, however, only a handful of Leadbetter students have forged their way onto the PGA Tour. But college golf careers are common. Of last year’s graduating class of 32 boys, 31 went on to college, earning $125,500 in scholarships.
“College is always out there,” Ben said. “But I’m not really thinking about that now.”
As Ben sheathed his 8-iron and moved off the driving range to the course, 9-year-old James Baker continued beating balls. Too young for full-time academy study, he had flown down from New York with his parents for a weeklong session.
“Of all the kids, he’s got the talent,” his mom Joanne said, beaming. “He’s going to be a pro.”
But a few weeks later, when reached by phone, she seemed less certain. “I was talking to him about it ,” she said. “And he says to me, ‘You know, mom, golf used to be my passion. But I’m not so sure anymore. Right now, I think my passion is computer games.'”
Schools vary, but the goal is the same — to help kids thrive. Here’s the skinny on four of the best:
1. David Leadbetter Golf Academy
The full-time program runs September-May; summer camps and weekly sessions are also available. 800-872-6425, www.imgacademies.com
2. International Junior Golf Academy
Like the Leadbetter Academy, this Hilton Head-based facility offers a boarding program with academic and athletic training. Gary Gilchrist, the IJGA’s director of instruction, ran the Leadbetter Academy for 10 years. 843-686-1500, www.ijga.com
3. The Arnold Palmer Golf Academy at Saddlebrook Resort
A year-round program with scholastics in the morning and practice in the afternoon. A maximum 5-to-1 student-teacher ratio is intended to maximize the attention each golfer receives. 813-907-4500, www.saddlebrook.com
4. Nike Golf Schools and Junior Camps
A range of summer programs for kids age 9-18, including junior resident camps, junior day camps, advanced-player camps and parent-child camps that allow parents to learn alongside their kids. 800-645-3226, www.ussportscamps.com