Golf academies require major commitments from everyone

Friday, July 3, 2009
Ginger Howard, left, watches Karen Chung's reaction to a missed putt Thursday. Howard attends the David Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla. (Kit Doyle)

How serious are some people about their golf swing?

Some practice in the bathroom mirror, putt at the office or buy all the latest gadgets.

Others may spend five years of their youth away from their parents at a golf academy at a cost of $60,000 a year.

That's the route that Davis Lee, who is playing in this week's AJGA Rolex Tournament of Champions at Dalhousie Golf Club, has taken.

While Lee's five years at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy at Hilton Head Island, S.C., may be at the extreme end for those attending academies, he's not the only one in this week's field to be attending golf academies rather than regular high schools.

Lee, whose parents live in New Jersey, graduated from the academy in May. He attended a public school through seventh grade before making the switch.

"I never really had a swing coach before," Lee said. "I just felt I was lacking that. I obviously wanted to play college golf and felt like I needed something organized to prepare every day."

He said the academy was his parents' idea, but he was excited to go.

He's spent nine months of the year, September though May, about a 3 1/2-hour plane trip from home for the last five years. He said he makes the journey home whenever there is a break during the school year.

"It was very different being away from your parents and home," Lee said. "You have to have a lot of responsibility to yourself to live on your own. You have to take care of the things like laundry and things that your parents normally do for you when you're little and growing up."

Most of the students at the Hank Haney International Junior Golf Academy also attend Heritage Academy, which provides their education. Lee said he had about 50 to 55 people in his graduating class in May, of which 30 to 35 also attended Hank Haney IJGA. The other students at Heritage Academy were tennis players, equestrians or musicians/dancers.

"It was a really good decision," Lee said. "The main thing I've gotten a lot better, but I've matured a lot. I have to be able to socialize with people around me and all around the country."

Lee said most students attending the school are high-school aged. A typical day included instruction at Heritage Academy from 7:15 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; lunch; practice at Hank Haney IJGA from 2 to 5:30 p.m.; and physical fitness from 5:45 to 6:30 p.m.

Then it was, "Go home, do homework, go to bed, wake up and do it all over again," Lee said with a smile.

Lee's dream of playing college golf became reality as he will play next season at the University of Oklahoma.

His future coach at Oklahoma, Ryan Hybel, has been attending this week's tournament.

"It definitely provides kids with opportunities to go and get instruction as much as they want, and before they come to college, it's almost like having college experience," Hybel said.

But Hybel was cautious about the subject, saying that the academies' success varies with the individual.

"There are a lot of cases of burnout of kids that end up going to those schools as well," Hybel said. "Like I said, it has its goods and it has its bads. And you hear a lot of both."

A dad's take

Mike Werenski of South Hadley, Mass., was following his 17-year-old son Richard around Dalhousie on Thursday, and he was an adamant proponent of the Hank Haney IJGA. Richard, who will graduate in 2010, has been attending the academy since midway through his sophomore year and recently signed with college golf powerhouse Georgia Tech.

"It was a real tough decision because it was almost like he was going away to college as a sophomore in high school," Mike said of the older of his two sons.

The father said the harsh winters in Massachusetts factored heavily in the decision to enroll Richard in the academy.

"With as much as they love the game, they can't touch a club four months, minimum, and then another two months after that you're playing gloves and thermal underwear," Mike said. "And this is his passion. So you know, we just tried to do everything we could to let him live out his dream."

Missing school was also a problem for Richard, who Mike said carries a 3.97 grade-point average.

"The great thing is he has so much outside help because he misses so much school," Mike said of the academy. "They expect that. The kids are basically there to be groomed as golf professionals. They are allowed to make everything up, whereas back home they just didn't understand it. When he missed school for a major golf tournament, they didn't care. The schools back home just fought you."

Mike said that Richard has found the academics at Heritage Academy just as challenging as at South Hadley High School.

Richard is now a 14 1/2-hour drive from his home in South Hadley. Mike Werenski said he sees his son almost every weekend, whether it's at tournaments, Richard coming home or the family traveling to South Carolina.

"But it's still not the same as having him [home]," Mike said.

Mike Werenski said the family considered sending Richard to a golf academy for a year or two before his son made the move. Other major golf academies are the David Leadbetter Academy in Bradenton, Fla., Gary Gilchrist Academy in Orlando, Fla., and Tom Burnett Golf Academy in Jacksonville, Fla.

"We looked at them all," Mike said. "And it came down to that one or David Leadbetter's. We just thought the parental supervision at this one was so much better than at Leadbetter's. And moving down there was not an option. So where they lived and their supervision was very important to us."

Mike said Richard was ranked around 100th in the world in his age class before he began attending the academy.

He said Richard currently is ranked in the top 15 for his class in the three major rankings. He doesn't believe his son would have received the scholarship to Georgia Tech if he had not gone to the academy.

"You're really not doing it for them to get a college scholarship," Mike said. "Most of the kids end up with one, but you actually pay more for this than you do for college."

Mike Werenski's other son Mickey, 15, is ranked around 60th in his class, and he plans for him to begin attending the academy this August.

"It was such a difficult decision, even to this day," Mike said. "Every Sunday night when we have to leave [Richard], my wife cries for two hours. It's tough leaving him, even just during the week, but she knows it's done so much for him, and he just loves it so much. He has such a passion for the game."

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