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International Junior Golf Academy: Golf's youth movement starts here

By Jennifer Mario, Contributor

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. - Kiara Hayashida gets up at 6 every morning. She downs a quick breakfast and it's off to school by 7:30. She's in class until 12:30, the grabs lunch. So far, so like most high school juniors.

IJGA students
At the IJGA, students study Macbeth in the morning, and their short game in the afternoon.
IJGA studentsIJGA's Gary Gilchrist with studentKiara Hayashida

But when most of her contemporaries would head back to class, Kiara heads for the range. Her afternoon is three hours of intense golf instruction, followed by nine holes.

Three days a week she hits the gym for fitness training. Once a week she has a session with a sports psychologist. She hasn't seen her parents for four months. And this is exactly how she likes it.

Kiara is part of a growing trend in golf. An elite junior player with LPGA aspirations, she has a foundation in the sport that would make most pros Bermuda grass-green with envy. She attends the International Junior Golf Academy (IJGA) in Hilton Head, and she plans to one day be the best woman golfer in the world.

She's already built an impressive resume. The soft-spoken 16-year old-from Lima, Peru, has a Junior Golf World Championship title under her belt, and she won the Peruvian International and National championships earlier this year. She drives the ball 250 yards on average and has scored as low as 5 under in competition.

So how did this young Peruvian with an easy, fluid swing and great golf genes (her aunt, Erika Hayashida, was the 1992 junior world champion and went on to the LPGA) end up on Hilton Head Island?

At a tournament in South America, Kiara was spotted by Gary Gilchrist, director of golf at IJGA. He took a look at her swing and thought she might just have what it takes not only to do well at the school but to do well on the tour.

A golf/secondary school where passionate golfers aged 11-18 study academics as well as honing their game, IJGA does not come cheap: Tuition is about $50,000 a year. But these students' parents consider it an investment, a down payment on that all-important college scholarship.

The brainchild of New York entrepreneur Ray Travaglione, IJGA opened in 1995 with just six students. Last year almost 200 students from all over the world passed through its doors, and the school has sent graduates on to golf powerhouses like Duke, Arizona State and the University of Virginia.

While the average high school athlete must find a way to make up lost class time when traveling to road matches, here it's the other way around. "Teachers are expected to provide appropriate make-up time and alternative lessons for these students," the school tells parents.

"Unlike most schools, we aren't teacher centered," says IJGA assistant head Gloria Shoemaker. "We're student centered."

Like Kiara Hayashida , 14-year-old Stephanie Meadow, winner of multiple girls events in her native Northern Ireland, moved to Hilton Head to train.

"At home, I'd win a tournament and go back to school and my teachers would say, 'Oh, you're back, here's your homework.' They didn't care how I did," says the bubbly, petite redhead. "Here I won a tournament and they announced it on the PA system."

Her parents, Robert and Louise, were so sold on the school that they came along with her, taking early retirement selling their home in Ireland.

"It was very important that we all wanted to do this," says Robert Meadow, a former financial director. "We treat ourselves as a team, all working together to do the best we can for Stephanie."

Most IJGA parents can't uproot themselves, though, so most students live in school housing. Middle-schoolers reside in townhomes on Hilton Head Island, high schoolers in cottages on nearby Daufuskie Island. Students live in groups of eight or nine, with a set of house parents who look after their meals and transportation.

Both groups have essentially the same schedule: class in the morning, golf instruction in the afternoon, fitness and psychological training weekly. It's all in the name of building the new breed of golfer.

"The difference between the good golfer and the great golfer is effort," Gilchrist says. He should know. He's the co-creator of that teen phenomenon known as Michelle Wie. Gilchrist has also worked with juniors such as Paula Creamer, Sean O'Hair, Virada Nirapathpongporn and Ty Tryon and PGA Tour players Ernie Els and Mark O'Meara.

IJGA isn't the only school of its kind. IMG's David Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla., and Saddlebrook Prep in Tampa also offer a mix of academics and athletics to accommodate this new breed.

Do kids lose something by giving up a "normal" education for a school like the IJGA?

"It's a trade-off," says alumnus Ana Johnson, who has returned to the school for additional work with its coaches. "You make some sacrifices. Instead of a prom you go to a tournament.

"But it equals out. Here it was easier to do the things I wanted to do."

Fitness training. Sport psychologists. Weekly tournaments. What was once the domain of professionals is now available to children. Is it any wonder competition is so stiff at Q-school?

Two years ago, two teenagers shared second place at the US Women's Open, 19-year-old Brittany Lang, then at Duke, and 16-year-old Morgan Pressel, who skipped college and headed straight for the LPGA Tour.

Asked whether she was intimidated as a teen amateur playing with seasoned pros, Pressel responded, "I'm baffled by the question. I've played lots of events. I know how to play golf. People look at age as something that should set me back. But I don't think it does."

Pressel's attitude reflects the amount and type of training that goes into molding today's top junior golfers. They compete almost weekly in American Junior Golf Association or International Junior Golf Tour events. They learn from top-level instructors. They spend as many hours grinding away at their game as any pro. They arrive at competitions with skill, confidence and, most important, experience.

Is it too much, asking 12- and 13-year-old kids to live with such single-minded purpose, to decide so early the path their life will take? Is it a shortcut to burnout?

"There's always that possibility, but these kids come here because this is their dream," IJGA founder Travaglione. "There's not a kid here who doesn't want to be here. Isn't this what you would want to do if you were 16?"

For more information, see www.ijga.com.

Jennifer MarioJennifer Mario, Contributor

Jennifer Mario is a regular contributor to the TravelGolf Network and the author of "Michelle Wie: The Making of a Champion" (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006). A graduate of Duke University, she lives in the Triangle area of North Carolina with her family.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • Don't go for the 1 week training

    tom wrote on: Jan 21, 2014

    International Junior Golf Academy at Hilton Head was not designed for the 1 week course they sell. Don't do it. They do nothing more than a local swing coach does, and you are paying big bucks for that. Their sales brochure sounds great but they don't give any meaningful instruction to the 1 week guests. The year round students are treated well but not the 1 week students.


  • Where is she now?

    All Childs Play wrote on: Apr 17, 2009

    Just read your article. Any updates? I admire youths with this kind of determination and motivation, but I always wonder if disappointments change their course.
    Can you give us an update?


  • IJGA a charade, facade, smokescreen

    RonMon wrote on: Dec 9, 2006

    two things: a female alumnus is known as an alumna. Next, my money is on none of these kids EVER making it on tour. Look at the latest generation of professionals in any sport, look at Sweden's national sports schools, and our national prep hockey programs, and show me any kid who has made it through this type of spoiled, ego-centric program. Balance is needed for any kid to make it, balance or poverty (which provides the impetus to get the hell out of, well, hell.)


    • RE: IJGA a charade, facade, smokescreen

      Jennifer Mario wrote on: Jan 9, 2007

      "show me any kid who has made it through this type of spoiled, ego-centric program"
      Well, Paula Creamer, for one, made it through almost exactly this type of program, Ron. She seems to be doing just fine on Tour.
      As far as balance goes, check out the lifestyles of the South Korean women who're currently doing so well on the LPGA. Not by any stretch of the imagination would any American call their training up to this point "balanced."
      Why slap labels on like "spoiled" and "ego-centric"? How about using more accurate terms like "talented" and "ambitious"?


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