Last week, at the Westfield Junior PGA Championship, 17-year-old
Elli Brown was living like J.Lo. When she wasn't indulging in
complimentary manicures and pedicures, she was unwrapping the
kind of gifts dearest to a young woman's heart: sunglasses, bags
and shoes. ¬∂ True, the bags and shoes bore brand names such as
Club Glove and Adidas, not Prada and Jimmy Choo. But the
manicures and pedicures were spa quality, and everything--plane
ticket, courtesy car for parents, food, lodging, accessory
swag--was as gratis as it gets. All Elli had to do was show up
and play a little golf. The entire experience was a long way
from her normal life in Kuna, Idaho. "I can't believe this
place," Brown gushed shortly after arriving in Westfield
Center, Ohio. "Every time you turn around they're giving you
something, or giving you something fun to do."
This is an article from the July 28, 2003 issue
Brown's visit to the Westfield Junior was her introduction to the
extravagances that have lately marked a radical change in the
nature of junior golf, as well as the end of its innocence. A
growing number of national tournaments are now all-expenses-paid.
In the wake of a USGA ruling on amateur status that went into
effect January 2002, kids can accept free gear from equipment
companies, and they now casually refer to themselves as Callaway
or Titleist staff players. In the summer they travel as much as
tour pros and increasingly play in actual pro tournaments. The
more accomplished players are subject to hypersolicitous
attention from college coaches and from golf academies backed by
high-powered management groups such as IMG.
It's a far cry from the junior circuit of a generation ago. Says
PGA Tour veteran John Cook, 45, whose 16-year-old son, Jason, is
an up-and-coming junior. "When I was playing in these things back
in the late '70s, the only thing we worried about was trying to
beat each other's brains in. Now it's almost as if playing is
secondary. It's all about who's getting what and who's going
where." What amazes Cook the most is the expectations of some of
the parents, who are counting on professional dollars to repay
their substantial investments in their kids' games. "You should
hear some of them talk," says Cook. "I'm not sure there's a kid
alive who can handle that kind of pressure."
Yet many are managing, at least on the course. Eight girls under
the age of 18 qualified for this year's U.S. Women's Open, and
with golf trending so young, the catch-a-rising-star atmosphere
at today's junior events is more pronounced than ever. At the
Westfield, Phillip Bryan, 17, of Mustang, Okla., won the boys'
division, but big-hitting, heavily-hyped Webb Simpson, 17, of
Raleigh, drew bigger galleries all week on his way to a
third-place finish. Having tied for sixth at the previous week's
prestigious AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions, Simpson is one of
the favorites at this week's U.S. Junior in Chevy Chase, Md., for
players 17 and younger. (The U.S. Girls' Junior also takes place
this week, in Fairfield, Conn.) Simpson, though, will be trumped
by 2002 AJGA Player of the Year Seung Su Han, 16, of Chino Hill,
Calif., who is playing in the PGA Tour's Greater Hartford Open on
a sponsor's exemption.
In the Westfield's girls' division, Emma Cabrera-Bello of Spain's
Canary Islands was the breakout star. A rail-thin 17-year-old
with sun-bleached hair and more lag in her swing than Sergio
Garcia, Cabrera-Bello spoke textbook English and was perhaps a
bit too honest. Asked whether she was surprised to be 10 shots
clear of the field after the third round, she replied, "No, I'm
really happy about it. I like having no competition."
Despite the competitive vibe at Westfield, junior golf's spirit
of youthful camaraderie was also in abundance. Brown and
Cabrera-Bello bunked in the same room at the Westfield Inn, the
posh hotel located on campus at the sponsor company's
headquarters, which is normally reserved for visiting corporate
clients. They became fast friends and spent much of their
downtime in an elaborate cyber cafe on the Westfield campus,
shrieking at each other as they played a monster-sized auto
racing simulator. "I can't believe she beat me every time," says
Brown. "She doesn't even own her own car, and I have a lead
Following the second of four rounds of stroke play, a handful of
kids lit out on a fishing expedition, led by mischievous Adam
Porzak, the Spanky of these little rascals (minus 50 pounds and
the beanie). Taylor Hall, a teammate of Porzak's from last year's
Junior Ryder Cup matches at the K Club in Ireland, was part of
the group, as were Simpson and Matt Savage. As they were
departing, a tournament official informed the boys that they were
obliged to attend a seminar on college recruiting. Nice try, Miss
Crabtree. "They've already gotten into college," said Porzak,
pointing at Simpson, who is committed to Wake Forest, and Hall,
who is bound for Georgia Tech. "And I'm not going for two years.
We're going fishing."
Within minutes four golf carts were racing out to a pond just off
the golf course, the outlaw posse having swollen to a co-ed
seven, with Jenny Suh behind the wheel of one of the carts.
Though a fine player herself--Suh also went to Ireland with last
year's Junior Ryder Cup team--clearly her true calling is
stunt-driving car chases in John Frankenheimer movies.
The fishing expedition, which brought in a half-dozen good-sized
bluegill and large-mouth bass, was harmless enough. It's the rest
of Westfield's trappings that have raised eyebrows, and red
flags, in the junior golf community. "We know all about
Westfield," says the USGA's senior director of communications
Marty Parkes, "and we've had to look at it for possible
amateur-status violations. We've cleared it, although it's not
exactly in keeping with our philosophy."
Westfield has already produced one of junior golf's most
high-profile scandals. Following last year's event, the PGA of
America, which puts on the event, received a letter complaining
that the 2002 girls' division winner, Sung Ea Lee, was older than
17. A check of the records showed that she was in fact 18, and
she was stripped of her title.
"You can't overstate how sorry she is," says Mary Lou Mulflur,
head coach at Washington, where Lee was honorable mention
all-conference this year. "She's from a single-parent home, and
her golf has been a tremendous [financial] burden on her father.
When she was invited to the tournament, she saw it as a rare
opportunity to compete at the highest level with all the expenses
taken care of." With so much candy on the apple, Lee simply
couldn't resist taking a bite.
At least she has gone on to prosper at the college level. At this
year's tournament, securing a scholarship was priority one for
almost every player between his or her junior and senior years in
high school, Elli Brown among them. "I've heard from about four
schools, but I still don't know what I'm going to do," says
Brown, who finished 24th. "I'm hoping some other college coaches
will see me here."
The odds of that happening were good. About 40 coaches were in
attendance, although that wasn't necessarily good news for kids
not on their games. "I've been playing bad all summer," says
James Fahselt, a member of Thursday evening's fishing party. "I
have to play good or I might not get into a good school."
An added degree of pressure arises from the kids' recognition of
their parents' colossal financial load. "Maybe $18,000 for the
whole year," says Roger Porzak, Adam's father. "I don't know how
a lot of parents afford it."
The answer is that they can't. "With us, it's more like $3,000
because we travel a lot less than the other families," says Karen
Bryan, mother of the boys' division champ. "My husband is a
minister, so we don't have a lot of extra money. Our deal with
Phillip is three to five road tournaments a year, but we usually
pick places where we can stay with extended family."
The Westfield's generosity allows the families to save on
expenses, but there is a trade-off. The cyber cafe, where the
kids spent a lot of their downtime, was off-limits to everyone,
including parents and the press. Ostensibly, what goes on indoors
is all good clean fun--except, maybe, for the illicit card games
that the kids keep whispering about. Although the sponsoring
Westfield Insurance Group would love to show off the restricted
areas, the PGA of America won't allow it, perhaps because of a
guilty conscience. "It's weird," says Melissa Porzak, Adam's mom.
"It's not like they're making porn movies in there. I mean, I
don't think they are."
For all the questions raised by the Westfield, the most
encouraging revelation last week was that the kids appeared
startlingly normal, despite the pressures and perks that
accompany their junior golf experience. Nowhere was that more the
case than out at the pond, where Rick Blankenburg, on whose
eight-acre spread the kids had been fishing, looked on with
approval. "I've been watching these kids now for a couple of
days," he said. "The thing that strikes me most is that they have
no idea who they are. It's like they're oblivious to where they
might be in five years." At his place, at least, the kids are
alright. What happens in the custody of others is another story.
So much depends on who's baiting the hook.