Date: August 20, 2015
Author: Stuart Hall, USGA

Elite programs fast-tracking talent

Having grown up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as a golfer with professional aspirations, Derek Ingram does not lament what might have been.

He eventually found his way onto the Canadian Tour for a brief spell, but was ultimately drawn more to instructing than playing.

"I was playing for a living, but was coaching guys I was playing against, which is a bad combination,” Ingram joked. 

The 45-year-old Ingram continues to instruct, having served as the head coach for Golf Canada’s Team Canada men’s national squad since 2011. At this week’s 115th U.S. Amateur Championship at Olympia Fields Country Club, Ingram is shepherding Austin Connelly, 18; Blair Hamilton, 21; and Tyler Saunders, 19; who is on Team Canada’s developmental team.

Golf Canada and Golf Australia are two of the more prominent national programs represented at this year’s championship. While the organizational structures may differ, their respective missions are similar — to develop and support their nation’s top young players.

Each year, the programs select national squads based on a variety of criteria. For example, Hamilton was chosen for the developmental team in 2012, but was out of the program for a couple of years before being selected for the national team this year.

Once players commit to the program, they are exposed to a wide range of support in the areas of fitness, sports psychology, nutrition, technique, equipment and competition. There are also funding opportunities available through national sports agencies and sponsors.

Canadian winters are not conducive to golf, so the members of Team Canada pack their clubs and head to warmer locales such as Florida, California and Texas to hone their games.

In January, Hamilton, a rising senior at the University of Houston who is No. 113 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking™ (WAGR), represented Canada at the South American Amateur in Peru.

Asked to pinpoint what his participation in the program has provided, Hamilton did not hesitate.

“Experience,” said Hamilton, noting that while as a member of the developmental team he played in the Junior Golf World Cup in Japan, an opportunity that would not otherwise have been afforded to him.

“When you’re on the team, it’s a very competitive environment,” he said. “So you’re training and competing against great players all the time. Steel sharpens steel.”

Ingram points to some of the players who are products of the program, such as Corey Conners, last year’s U.S. Amateur runner-up at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga.

“The credit goes to the players for putting in the work,” Ingram said. “We just provide the opportunities for coaching and support. That being said, I think if you asked the players, they would say, no question they wouldn’t be where they are without our national team program.”

Conners was a member of the national team until he turned professional in April, then became a member of Golf Canada’s Young Pros team. Conners will receive support for the next few years as he transitions to the professional level.

Ryan Ruffels, 17, and No. 10 in the WAGR, has been away from his Victoria, Australia, home since the beginning of June. After a swing through Europe in which he played the St. Andrews Links Trophy, the Amateur Championship at Carnoustie, and the PGA European Tour’s French Open, he came to North America.

He made the cut at the RBC Canadian Open, then lost to Robby Shelton in the quarterfinals of the Western Amateur two weeks ago before coming to the U.S. Amateur.

Ruffels admits that his 12-week tour could not have been funded by his parents, nor would he have been invited to the professional French and Canadian Opens had it not been for Golf Australia.

“They have been amazing,” Ruffels said.

Ruffels, who has been in the Golf Australia pipeline since age 14, is convinced the experience has accelerated his maturation.

“From an early age, they have put a team of trainers, coaches and biomechanics around me,” he said. “Players over here maybe develop that when they’re in college when they are 18 or 19, but we get that a little bit earlier. We are all really prepared and are not daunted by the big stage, and we’re all able to compete.”

Ruffels earned the No. 8 seed in U.S. Amateur stroke play, while fellow Golf Australia player Brett Coletta earned medalist honors with a 7-under 133 total. Other Golf Australia members in this week’s field were Lucas Herbert, Cameron Davis, Curtis Luck and Antonio Murdaca.

Coletta, who is No. 299 in the WAGR and joined the Golf Australia team in November, has been in the United States since mid-July. After qualifying for the U.S. Amateur, he played in the Porter Cup, then attended a weeklong Golf Australia camp in The Woodlands, Texas, before failing to qualify for the Western Amateur.

“I definitely would have come and tried to qualify for this event, but Golf Australia has really accelerated my development in the past 10 months,” said Coletta.

Ingram said if the Golf Canada program did not exist, occasional diamond-in-the-rough players would rise to the fore, but their road would be a lot harder.

He speaks from experience.“If I knew then what I know now, and these opportunities existed, things would have been a lot different for myself and a lot of other athletes,” Ingram said. “So I’m just happy to be able to share some of the things I have learned through the years.”