BRADENTON, Florida — When Andrea Watts was 15 years old, she was a star student at a top Denver prep school and seemed destined to attend an Ivy League college. But she wanted to become a pro golfer. So in August 2006, she and her mother, Sunee, decamped to Bradenton, just south of Tampa.
Their destination was the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, located on Highway 41, wedged between an all-you-can-eat oyster bar and a trailer park in a Florida strip mall. A big sign out front reads “The Home of Junior Golf.”
The Leadbetter Academy is revolutionizing the game of golf, accelerating the process of producing top-flight professional golfers. Most golfers used to peak at the age of 30. Today, many are making their mark a decade earlier.
“It is like Yale and Harvard — all the kids are striving for same goal, building an environment of excellence,” Leadbetter himself says. “We get these kids at the age of 13 or 14 and many are very average. Two or three years later, these guys and girls are real good players.”
Leadbetter’s example is spreading. The most prominent copycat is the International Junior Golf Academy, based in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Ex-high school golf star and New York foreign currency trader Ray Traviglione was bored with his job and the cold northern winters. So he moved south and started his own golf Academy.
The rival Academies’ curriculums look like mirror images: Kids play golf half a day and go to school half a day. On weekends, they compete in tournaments. At Hilton Head, Traviglione owns and operates his own school, the Heritage Academy, which offers a regular high school education in convenient half-day chunks.
The South Carolina and Florida-based golf academies cost roughly the same for tuition, room and board, almost $70,000 a year. Despite the price, the Hilton Head Academy has 150 full-time students and 650 summer campers. Traviglione sold the operation to a private equity group in the spring of 2007 for “north of $10 million,” though he continues to run the operation.
With financing from his private equity partners, Traviglione hopes to expand the Academy model to other U.S. locations, notably in California, where he hopes to attract more Asian players. Hilton Head already has many South American students, while Leadbetter’s Bradenton operation has succeeded in wooing more Asian clientele.
“The growth possibility for training Chinese and Koreans is immense,” Traviglione says. Future Academies could be established abroad, in South Africa, Western Europe or Latin American. “I think we could have five or six locations worldwide without any cannibalization,” Traviglione says.
Ironically, this golf revolution began with tennis. Legendary coach Nick Bollettieri launched a tennis school three decades ago on the Bradenton site. It began as a small, somewhat ramshackle, family-run operation. Bollettieri’s hard-driving style — up at 4 a.m. and ready for six hours of tennis a day — soon produced champions such as Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles.
In 1987, the International Management Group, a giant agency that represents athletes and runs athletic events, bought Bollieteri’s operation and expanded it. One of its first moves was to add golf. International Management Group bought the youth division of Leadbetter’s golf academies. “No one had ever done this, so we said, ‘let’s see how it works,” recalls Leadbetter, a renowned teacher.
In recent years, the Academy has expanded beyond golf and tennis to include hockey, baseball, soccer and basketball. Golf facilities include a 30,000 square foot grass tee area, lighted hitting bays, four target greens, sand bunkers, putting and chipping greens, and an on-scene administrative building with state of the art video rooms, pro shop and club fitting. Students also have access to the nearby Legacy Golf Club or El Conquistador Country Club. More than 20 coaches cater to the golf students.
At the Academy, athletics are not just about fun — they’re hard work. When students arrive, they immediately enter a two-week evaluation period. During the regular school year, students rise at sunrise for a quick breakfast followed by three hours of weight training and golf drills. After a shower and lunch, they hurry to the Pendleton School for four and a half hours. Then it’s either to the gym or to the sports psychologist, practicing exercises to handle the pressure of competing in top-flight sporting events.
Twice a week, morning practice session is replaced with a round of golf. Dinner is followed by homework. Lights are out by 10:30 on school nights and life outside the Academy consists of little more than a trip to the local beach or the strip mall. Instead of partying, weekends are devoted to tournaments. The week’s “study” leads up to the event. Coaches take students out on the course in preparation. The week after each event is spent analyzing shots.
Perhaps the most famous graduate is Paula Creamer, now a top-rated professional on the LPGA tour.
“Many of the kids were sent just because their parents thought it was important for them to learn how to play for their future business career,” marvels Karen Creamer, Paula’s mother.
Despite such successes, critics say no top-flight male golfer has yet emerged from Bradenton. The only Academy graduate on the men’s pro golf tour is little-known Dave Gossett. “For the most part, I think it's nuts,” Bob Rotella, the sports psychologist, has written. “The academies are mass producers of mediocrity, because everybody is taught the same thing. If you want to be great, you have to find your own way.”
Many pro golfers agree, insisting that golfers continue to bloom later than other sports. Julie Inkster, 47, started playing golf only at the age of 15 and remains a top attraction on the women’s professional tour. She played few junior tournaments — few existed then — and only began to realize her full potential in college. “All these kids are starting earlier and earlier, going full-time to golf schools,” she says. “It’s not necessary — you don’t have to make it on the tour at age 18. You can still start later and be a success at age 24 or 25.”
Critics complain that Academy golf training suffers from a mechanical cookie-cutter approach. All students seem to have a similar warm-up motion. They place themselves before the ball, adjust their bodies into the correct posture, and then move the club backwards and forwards in a short, ankle-high warm-up movement. Their swings, dissected into nine parts, share a similar wrist cock at the top and a similar follow-through.
When the Watts arrived in Florida, Sunee bought a house off campus in Bradenton. The academics at the Academy proved much easier for Andrea than at her high-powered Colorado prep school. “In Denver, I’d come home from school at 5 p.m. and would have four hours of homework,” Andrea recalls. “They just grind you.” At the Academy, the academics are not rigorous, she says: “There are too many opportunities to screw up and the kids are traveling all the time for tournaments."
But the golf was much more difficult than she expected. Like many Academy newcomers, she was confronted for the first time with ambitious athletes who practiced harder than her. She was placed in the same group as tennis great Ivan Lendl’s two oldest daughters, 17-year old Marika and 16-year old Isabelle. Isabelle arrived an hour and half early for the morning lessons, and began practicing. Marika showed up only half an hour later. Andrea and her mom just managed to make the 8:30 a.m. start time. The Lendl girls spent long hours in the gymnasium. Andrea was bored lifting weights and working out.
But her golf quickly improved. Andrea adapted the Leadbetter swing motion and the tough Academy rhythm. She began hitting the ball long and straight, and gained confidence in her game. She will not be going to an Ivy League school, of course. But the University of Florida has offered her a full scholarship. “Andrea is a different golfer and a different girl since joining the Academy,” said Sunee Watts. “She’s ready to compete with the best.”
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Excerpted from "Shooting for Tiger: How Golf's Obsessed New Generation is Transforming a Country Club Sport," publishing this month from PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.