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Fly And Drive

Top Junior Golfers Hit Road in Search of Scholarships

August 28, 1998|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the start of school draws near, many of the region's top junior golfers are returning home with bleary eyes--the result of time-consuming, expensive summers of playing around the country in tournaments sponsored by the American Junior Golf Assn.

On the road for three to four weeks at a time, with budgets close to $10,000, these players give myriad reasons for putting themselves and their parents through such strains.

J.T. Kohut of Simi Valley said he wants to play against the top competition in the nation.

Anne Lee of Northridge said she enjoys seeing new places and meeting people.

Justin Ohye of Calabasas said he gets a thrill from playing at championship-caliber courses where the pros play.

But the one reason each golfer and their parents gave for playing such a demanding schedule was to get a college scholarship.

"You have to play in [AJGA tournaments]," said Ohye, a junior at Calabasas High who has maintained a busy summer golf schedule for the last two years. "That is what the college coaches are looking at."

The AJGA began in 1977 with the goal of developing junior golfers through a competitive national schedule.

What began as a two-tournament schedule has blossomed to 47. Next summer, eight will be added. But with the growth of the Roswell, Ga.-based organization, the focus has shifted toward college recruiting.

"We service two customers," said Stephen Hamblin, executive director of the AJGA. "Junior golfers and college coaches."

Hamblin said by hosting national-caliber tournaments, junior golfers can see exactly where they stack up among the national elite. And they get valuable exposure in front of college coaches.

"We simply filled a void," Hamblin said. "High school golf is probably one of the most underdeveloped sports in the nation. What we're doing is providing quality information, making everyone's lives easier as far as recruiting."

The AJGA has a computer-accessible database that includes resumes, profiles and results for all of its 4,500 members. Tournament results are updated daily on the AJGA web site, and college coaches who subscribe to a service receive those results via e-mail.

"It's a tremendous resource," said Andrea Gaston, USC women's coach. "We can get information we're looking for about all the players we're looking at."

The AJGA has become such a big part of college recruiting that high school coaches are almost eliminated from the process.

"Occasionally a coach will contact me or I'll write a letter for a kid," said Dennis Ford, golf coach at Hart High, which has produced several Division I golfers in the last 10 years. "But by and large, the AJGA does the job. The only time I see a college coach is at the [CIF/SCGA] finals."

Even bag tags given to AJGA players have become crucial. Written on the tags is a player's name and graduation year. That way, coaches know who is eligible to be recruited and who isn't when they attend tournaments.

"What the coaches need is information," Hamblin said. "They need it accurate, up to date and timely. We provide that."

According to Kohut, who attends Westlake High and is expected to be the region's most heavily recruited senior, it's about more than getting your name into a computer.

"Every player wants the recognition," he said. "But it's also about the experience--playing against the top competition, the courses. The AJGA is like the pro tour in junior golf. Because of the AJGA we are prepared for college."

Prepared, yes. But the cost of such preparation can be mind-boggling.

George Kohut, J.T.'s father, estimated he has spent between $15,000 and $20,000 in the last two years getting J.T. to tournaments all over the country.

Yoshiko Ohye, Justin's mother, is going through this for the second time. Her son, Jon, received a scholarship to UC Santa Barbara. She didn't want to guess what her and husband David have spent on Justin's summer golfing.

"We never really calculated it," Yoshiko said. "We were too scared. When the summer is over, we just say, 'We survived, time to start saving again.' "

But considering the high cost of attending a private college, some say it's worth every penny.

"It's like they are paying my tuition now," said Lee, ranked 24th in the Golfweek/Titleist national girls' rankings.

For most parents, the chance to see their child succeed is worth the cost.

"For any father to let his kid pursue his dream, it makes your heart swell," George Kohut said. "If he's lucky, maybe he'll get a shot at it. But if I don't expose him to it, I know he'll never get it."

Players whose families can't afford the travel costs usually play in local junior tournaments where the exposure isn't nearly what it is at AJGA events.

Those players, college coaches say, are at a disadvantage.

"My heart goes out to those kids," Gaston said. "There's a lot of talent outside the AJGA, but it seems the AJGA is the ultimate resource. Top-10 schools are less likely to recruit a kid outside the AJGA."

But John Geiberger, men's coach for 1997 NCAA champion Pepperdine, said good players will get recognition whether or not they play in AJGA events.

"If a kid is interested in your school, you're going to get a resume from him," he said.

The prevailing attitude among the players, however, is that without AJGA experience, it will be tough to earn any scholarship.

"You can play the local tournaments, but that's small," Justin Ohye said. "You have to play the bigger ones."

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