Hilton Head Island and the Lowcountry have become a golf mecca for a variety of players, from PGA Tour stars to the weekend warrior looking to play a round in a sun-drenched, world-class setting. As much as adults flock to area golf courses, the island has also become a center for a thriving junior golf industry.
From locals looking to raise their games in hopes of earning golf-based college scholarships to international families sending their children to the U.S. to master the game in hopes of PGA fame, Hilton Head has quickly earned a reputation as one of the top training grounds in the world.
“When you factor in the locale with the amazing courses we have at our disposal, it really becomes a no-brainer,” said Keith Bach, president and owner of the Junior Players Golf Academy, one of three of the larger academies on the island. “The island sells itself with the beauty and the tranquility, but then it’s a matter of building a structure that really fosters learning. That’s what I think makes us stand out on Hilton Head.”
Three academies on the U.S. 278 corridor have distinguished themselves, each offering a different kind of experience. The basics at all three are the same — roughly half the weekday is spent attending school, with the other half of the day spent training, practicing and competing on the links — but each academy has honed its own philosophy to raising the junior game.
The instruction comes at a cost — on average, more than $42,000 a year for full-time room and board plus the costs of schooling, which can run between $15,000 and $20,000 a year. But compared to academies in Orlando that can charge double that cost, island students get value in a less-urban setting full of Lowcountry landscapes and hospitality.
The International Junior Golf Association began under the direction of founder Ray Travaglione in 1995 with just six students. Now run by the Junior Sports Corporation, the academy has grown into a globally recognized model for molding not just great golfers, but great citizens. Alumni include PGA Tour pros Hunter Mahan and Ricky Fowler and LPGA pro Paula Creamer, and more than 90 percent of the academy’s students earn collegiate golf scholarships.
“We are focused on making a transformational impact on young lives,” said IJGA director of marketing and communications Rachael Rincus. “We really focus on personal development, not just the golf game. We have top-notch golf instruction, but it’s also about making better people who are involved in their community, want to volunteer and want to become culturally diverse adults.”
The IJGA partners with the accredited Heritage Academy for its academic program. Its on-course golf instruction is based at Bluffton’s Pinecrest and Island West golf clubs, and students also have access to play at Crescent Pointe, Eagles Pointe and Rose Hill golf clubs.
The academy also boosts a training facility off of Red Cedar Street in Bluffton, a 6,300-square-foot indoor facility that features the latest innovations in cardio and weight training, swing analysis, high-definition golf simulators and hitting and putting stations. Students are housed in student housing at the Lakes at Myrtle Park apartment complex in Bluffton.
The IJGA also recently became the only academy in the world to offer Golf BioDynamics, a 3-D imaging system that tracks real-time position and orientation of parts of the body as the golfer swings the club. The biofeedback training has been shown to speed up the process of overcoming roadblocks in making physical adjustments to a player’s game.
Players also undertake a rigorous competition schedule, with access to more than 60 annual events, including three international events through the International Junior Golf Tour.
IJGA has grown to more than 130 full-time students with a 7-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio anchored by director of instruction Kevin Smeltz, who taught everyone from Greg Norman to 2014 world No. 1 women’s golfer Inbee Park.
For more information, visit www.ijga.com.
The Junior Players Golf Academy offers a more island-centric experience under the direction of president and owner Kevin Bach.
The Island Golf School and Future Collegians World Tour founder has run academies on Hilton Head for 14 years and is now in his eighth year of running JGPA. Bach, a former IJGA instructor, has praise for his former employer but wanted to offer a different take on the academy model.
“I feel like we offer a world-class result but on a smaller scale when it comes to the number of students,” Bach said. He and his staff keep the program to around 30 full-time students with a student-to-teacher ratio of no more than 4-to-1.
The academy is largely based in the Beach City Road corridor of Hilton Head, with the on-course teaching based at Palmetto Hall Golf Club (though players have access to 10 different courses around the island) and the student housing campus — six four-bedroom houses — all within a bike ride to the course. The academy is also building a 1.2-acre training and learning center at the entrance of Hilton Head Airport, which will house fitness, high-tech instruction and kitchen and office facilities.
“We hear this a lot from students that they like the central location while still having access to the best in teaching and facilities,” Bach said. “IJGA is a little more spread out. It’s just a different kind of experience.”
The JPGA partners with Hilton Head Preparatory School for academics and offers membership and nine tournament entries on the Hurricane Junior Golf Tour as part of tuition.
“We pride ourselves on tailoring our fitness training, our mental training, our on-course instruction to each individual student,” Bach said. “We have had the eighth-grader come in who can’t break 100 and mold them into a collegiate golfer and we can take the top-notch student and make them mentally and physically stronger to mold them into a world-class competitor.”
For more information on JPGA, visit www.jrpga.com.
Then there’s the upstart of the bunch in David Goolsby, a former Augusta National instruction director who has taught under or beside some of the top instructors in the world, including Carl Rabito, David Leadbetter, Gary Gilchrist and Hank Haney.
Goolsby has also taught at IJGA, most recently when Haney was headlining the academy. But after years of traveling the world teaching for others, the Southern native wanted to branch out into his academy offering.
So in 2013, Goolsby started the Junior Golf Academy of Hilton Head. His wife, Shannon, is director of student affairs and serves as the “house mom” in the seven-bedroom house that currently serves as the academy’s housing base.
His mother and former college professor, Mary Jo Goolsby, serves as the head of college placement.
Goolsby said that while he’s just getting going, he’s showing his students the way with his tenacious work ethic.
“I personally tailor their programs, I use the best in tech to track every round and every swing,” he said. “No one will outwork me, I promise that to every student and every parent I have the privilege of meeting, and I show that to them every day.”
Goolsby currently has eight full-time students but is looking for investors to help him slowly build the academy at a pace that keeps the student first. He is currently working with fitness instructor and former NFL star Kevin Breedlove and has teachers such as renowned mental coach Jim Fannin to work with students as the academy grows.
“We’re opening up a 2,500-square-foot training facility, so it’s really starting to take shape and we’re seeing the results,” he said.
Goolsby points to current student Jan Schneider as a sign of the progress. The golfer has gone from No. 929 in the Hurricane Golf Tour rankings in late 2013 to currently No. 5 under Goolsby’s direction.
“I tell parents, don’t judge me by my best students, though. Look at the students that started a bit farther behind in development, see how far they’ve come,” Goolsby said. “We’re results-driven. This is becoming a big-time industry with youth golf, but at the end of the day, it’s about kids and showing them and their parents improvement, both on the course and in developing into successful adults.”
For more information, call Goolsby at 706 220 4229 or visit the academy’s Facebook page at facebook.com/HiltonHeadJuniorGolfAcademy.