Field of Dreams

By staff February 1, 2007

They were humble roots, indeed.

Actually, weeds have now overtaken the vacant lot where it all started, at the southwest quadrant of Business 41 and Florida Avenue, near the Whitfield Estates neighborhood in Bradenton. Outlines of a practice range remain, though, and one can easily imagine swing guru David Leadbetter giving a clinic in his trademark wide-brimmed hat.

Or Michael Campbell, an unknown New Zealander ranked 270th in the world, seeking to take his game to the next level. Campbell came here in the late ‘90s and rose to win the 2005 U.S. Open, outdueling Tiger Woods in a memorable final round at Pinehurst’s famed No. 2 course.

You might have seen reed-thin Sean O’Hair begin to show the muscle that would make him the 2005 PGA Tour rookie of the year.

Or young phenoms Aree and Naree Song, twin sisters from Thailand who practiced their set-ups and swings in front of a mirror, taking time to check their clothes and hair, too. They represented the first wave in a rising tide of Asian players who’ve since become a major force on the LPGA Tour.

David Whelan, director of the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, laughs fondly as he recalls those not-so-long-ago days at the leased property situated behind the Anna Maria Oyster Bar, where you could grab a grouper sandwich and catch a glimpse of golf’s next generation honing their skills.

"It just goes to show you that if you create the right environment, you can produce results, even if they train in a field," Whelan says.

Twelve years ago, 15 kids were enrolled in the golf program. Five years ago, the academy had grown to about 100. Today, Whelan oversees more than 200 junior players at the DLGA, which relocated a few years ago and became a crown jewel of the IMG Sports Academies, a multi-sport powerhouse for training world-class athletes amid its sprawling megaplex of facilities in the Bayshore area of Bradenton.

They eat together. Train together. Attend school together during a nine-month regimen. It’s a focused, intensive program designed to help a player tap into their potential on and off the course.

Critics suggest the DLGA’s approach resembles a factory of perfect little swings and pre-packaged protégées. That juniors here are cloned, rather than groomed, as assembly-line golfers. That for every Campbell, O’Hair or Paula Creamer, a recent star, there’s a flip side full of kids who struggle once they leave the DLGA cocoon.

Fair or not, these are ambitious youngsters from mostly wealthy backgrounds who’ve already experienced early success and want to be pushed to another level.

“They are in a competitive environment every day,” Whelan says. “But it’s a team atmosphere. They see the dedication of other players in tennis, soccer, baseball and all the sports, and there’s a lot of one-upmanship. You’d be surprised. You don’t just become competitive when you grow up. You see a lot of that with kids. It’s the kind of environment every professional team would love to have.”

Maybe the golf academy’s most famous alum thus far, Creamer turned pro, qualified for the LPGA Tour and won her first tournament a week before graduating from high school in 2005. At 18, she became the youngest LPGA winner in 53 years, a leader of the tour’s youth movement and an instant rival for stars Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Juli Inkster.

Creamer arrived in 2000 at age 14 and, like many academy players, established herself as a force in the junior ranks. Like the Songs before them, the Creamers made the decision to accompany their daughter to Bradenton from Pleasanton, Calif. As the DLGA has grown, more families have followed suit. An example: Former tennis great Ivan Lendl moved his five daughters here so they could train at the academy. (Marika and Isabelle Lendl already are considered blue-chip juniors on the national level.)

“Paula was not going to come without us,” says her father, Paul, a pilot with American Airlines. “It’s tough enough for college-age kids to move away from home. It’s a lot to ask a 14-year-old to get thrown into the world like that so quickly.”

So Paul put in for a transfer to Miami, and he and wife Karen set about helping their only child chase her dream.

In retrospect, there were many sacrifices along the way, Paul says, but the outcome might have been different otherwise. “I really believe the kids who succeed the most have that stable family influence of having at least one parent here,” he adds.

Girls have especially thrived during their time at the DLGA, with Creamer, Aree Song and Julieta Granada of Paraguay gaining quick success in the pro ranks.

But it's proven much harder for academy boys to break through on the PGA Tour. What with an average age in the mid-30s, deeper talent pools and increasing star power funneling in from Europe and Australia, the men's tour simply takes longer to crack. One also can argue that Tiger Woods’ dominance, which cast a huge shadow and forced top veteran players to work harder, has made the rungs of early success even more difficult to reach.

Another factor: As in other sports, girls might just now be realizing the depth of their golf abilities. “There will be a lot more,” Paul Creamer says. “Not everyone takes the same path. There’s a big group of players in the pipeline that aren’t on tour yet.”

Still, the majority of DLGA students do not blaze an immediate trail from the state-of-the-art practice range to the professional tours. Preparing its players for college remains the academy's primary focus.

The DLGA has become a required recruiting stop for college golf coaches. In the past three years, 80 of 110 graduates (72 percent) received some kind of scholarship to play golf. And once at their chosen university, they usually make an impact. Indeed, three alums—Jonathan Moore, Tyler Leon and brother Trent—led Oklahoma State's men's team to the last NCAA Division I championship. A fourth Cowboys star and former academy player, Casey Wittenberg, would have been part of that title team if he hadn't turned professional the previous season. 

On the women’s side, Virada Nirapathpangporn played at Duke and was the 2002 NCAA champion.

"We get a lot of notoriety for [producing young pros]," Whelan says. "But I'd hate for the golf world to think that's what we're here for."  

Even after doubling the number of kids in its programs during the past five years, the DLGA might only be scratching the surface. The academy has always attracted a strong contingent of international juniors, but as golf truly goes global, Whelan expects another boom in enrollment soon.

The game has just started to take root in China over the past five years, he says, and 10 or so Chinese protégées already attend the academy. The explosion in Korean and Thai players, particularly among girls, continues. Indonesia suddenly has emerged on the radar. American kids, perhaps inspired by Creamer’s story, appear to be growing in numbers, too. 

“As the golf world broadens its horizons, so does the academy,” Whelan says.

That’s quite a leap from a small field behind an oyster bar.

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