How to Raise A Tour Pro: Case Studies

How to Raise A Tour Pro: Case Studies

With measured encouragement from his parents, Chris Kirk, center, has soared.
Erika Larsen

Case Study #1: Start local

Without realistic goals and easygoing parents, Chris Kirk might never have become the No. 2 player in college golf

GARY AND KIM KIRK of Woodstock, Ga., weren’t trying to raise a Tour pro. But they might wind up with one anyway. When their son, Chris, was 7, he started playing golf — casually at first, then seriously. He teed it up with his father and took lessons from a local golf instructor. In high school, he got a job at the local course.

“As long as he got straight As, we told him he could stay at the course all day,” Kim says.

The Kirks never pushed Chris into top-level junior tournaments. He began by competing on the local circuit. When he won at one level, he moved on to the next. “One of the first things we tell people in junior golf is let your kid play his way up,” Kim says. “We kind of learned this by accident but it was the best thing that could have happened. As a result, Chris never wound up playing against competition that was over his head. And we didn’t spend time and money flying all over the place.”

In 10th grade, Chris claimed first prize in a Southeastern Junior Golf Association event, which earned him an invite to a prestigious American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) tournament. There, he finished second. Chris never attended a year-round golf academy. He played on his high school team. “Nothing against places like the Leadbetter Academy,” Kim says. “We know people who have loved it. But I was kind of adamant about our kids not living away from home. I’m glad it wasn’t something he begged us to let him do.”

Chris earned a scholarship to the University of Georgia, where he earned first-team All-American honors. He graduates this year as the No. 2-ranked player in college golf, and plans to try his luck at Q-School this fall. “I think the big thing is to just let it be all about them and what they want to do,” Kim says. “He loved golf and pursued it passionately. We pretty much just drove the car.”


Parents should focus on parenting, not swing planes

If you’re that guy who hovers over his daughter at the range, imparting your patented swing theories between every shot, here’s a word of advice: Stop. “The parent-child relationship isn’t set up for that,” says Rich Marik, a former junior golf star and captain of the Stanford golf team who’s now the national director of instruction for Nike Camps & Schools. “Parents are the support system. They’re there to love and nurture. With golf instruction, especially when you get into areas of critique, that can become fraught territory for a parent and child. What’s more, instruction is a skill. Anyone can try to teach. But not everyone knows how to do it well.”

Case Study #2: Lone star | Case Study #3: Joe Public

Case Study #2: Lone star

After 18 months at the Leadbetter Academy, Jake Creel learned how to manage his game. It was the homesickness that he couldn’t handle.

JAKE CREEL showed early golfing promise growing up in Dothan, Ala. He enrolled at the Leadbetter Academy in eighth grade and moved to Florida on his own with the dream of someday playing on the PGA Tour. His first dormmate at Leadbetter was Casey Wittenberg, the future U.S. Amateur champion. His close friend was Jonathan Moore, who went on to win the individual men’s title at the NCAA Division I Championship.

Elite company, but not the kind of companionship Creel craved most. “I wouldn’t trade the experience I had for the world,” Creel says. “But in the end, I decided I wanted to be home. I wanted to be around friends.”

Creel returned home after his freshman year and played golf on his high school team. His parents frequently drove him to Florida for private lessons with an instructor who’d worked with Leadbetter. “He made wonderful friends at the academy and had experiences that you can’t put a price on,” says Creel’s father, Doug. “But he also gave up a lot. And we gave up our son for a year-and-a-half.”

Creel went on to play golf at LSU but left the team after his sophomore year. He still plans to pursue a career in golf, but not as a Tour pro. “What I tell parents and kids who are thinking about taking an intensive route is, ‘Hey, that’s great,'” Jake Creel says. “But you need to realize the sacrifice it takes and what you lose as a person. If that’s all you ever want and have no other desires, that’s one thing. But golf can be a lonely game.”


1. You know your son’s handicap, but not his GPA

2. Your daughter’s only stuffed animal is a head cover

3. You’ve had a heart-to-heart about the birdies and the bees

4. All his back-to-school supplies come from the Callaway catalog

5. You focus on the three R’s: writing, ‘rithmatic and reading grain

6. You filled his baby bottle with Gatorade

7. You refer to his girlfriends as his “scoring average”

8. You don’t recognize him without his visor

9. When he cries, you hold up a sign that says, “Quiet, please!”

10. When he was born, you handed out tee-gars

Case Study #1: Start local | Case Study #3: Joe Public

Case Study #3: Joe Public

Before you dip into your retirement fund to help nurture your kid’s game, consider the case of Joe David, who moved up the ranks without benefit of a country club

When Joe David was still holding a rattle and not a golf club, his family disintegrated, so young Joe moved in with his grandfather in Old Hickory, Tenn. There wasn’t much money, but there was golf.

“Joe must have been about 4 when he came outside one day and saw me chipping in the backyard,” says grandfather Woody Keen. “I played left-handed, but I had an old right-handed 7-iron I gave him. Wasn’t long before he knocked out one of my storm windows with a ball.”

Keen, who earned a living as a painter, struck a deal with a nearby public course: he’d provide their clubhouse with a fresh coat of paint if they let his grandson play and practice for free. Seven days a week, early in the morning and in the afternoon, Joe beat balls. An instructor at the course, the Riverside Golf Center, noticed Joe’s commitment and offered him free lessons. The pro shop cut him a deal on clubs.

“We ain’t always had the finances,” Keen says. “But we’ve been wealthy in other ways.”

By the time Joe hit his teens, his dedication started to pay off. He starred on his high school golf squad. At 16, he qualified for the U.S. Junior Amateur, shooting 73 and 68 to finish seventh in the stroke-play rounds. He received a grant from the AJGA, which covered his travel and tournament entry fees.

College coaches took note. Joe, a high school senior, is weighing offers from, among others, Ole Miss, the University of Kentucky and the University of Tennessee. He still lives with his grandfather, and his deal with his local course still stands. “My feeling is you just have to be dedicated and practice, practice, practice,” Joe says. “You don’t have to go to a fancy academy.”

Case Study #1: Start local |
Case Study #2: Lone star

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