Michael Weston meets Jake Hibbert to discuss why heading to US golf colleges is such an attractive option for many UK golfers looking to turn professional.
Why UK Golfers Keep Heading To US Golf Colleges
When Jake Hibbert went to look around Florida Atlantic University, his dad, Steve, turned to him and said, “If these guys want you, you want to be saying yes!” The size of the college football stadium gave him an idea of what being a student athlete at FAU might be like. Then there was the course being built for the golf team and a new $60m gym.
After mulling it over, the 19-year-old signed for the ‘Owls’. Golf scholarship secured, he was off to America to pursue his dream of becoming a professional at one of the best US golf colleges.
The last ten years have flown by. It doesn’t seem that long since he was hitting balls into the Irish Sea, enjoying stays with his grandparents in their caravan in Blackpool. He joined Warrington when he was ten and won the Club Championship four years later. His aim is to play on the PGA Tour by the time he’s 25, and the way to achieve that, he’s decided, is through the college system in America.
Golf scholarships aren’t handed out like confetti. A promising golf game is one of the prerequisites, yes, but you can’t get into college without the necessary academic grades – which in Jake’s case were GCSEs. Even then, competition for spaces is fierce and you need to display certain characteristics.
Jake ticked all the boxes and started discussing his options with College Sports America after playing in the Henry Cooper (an international junior golf tournament), which turned out to be a significant moment.
“I would have been just about 17 and that was the age when I started to think about America,” he says. “I was thinking about doing an online degree at home and then playing the amateur circuits in Europe. But I just felt like I would get more out of going to the States, purely because of the weather and playing really competitive events every week from January until May.”
“I was pretty fussy about where I wanted to go because I wanted to get the best out of myself. There were four or five different schools I was thinking of going to. I took a year out and went to Australia, which was a great experience. I played in the Australian Amateur and New South Wales Amateur and I actually signed a contract for FAU when I was out there.”
College Sports America helps student athletes pursue their dream through a sports scholarship. It has scouts all over the world, and in a typical year will recruit in the region of 150 to 180 golfers from Europe, including as many as 80 from the UK. Director, Nick Flynn, remembers the first time he saw Jake play. It wasn’t just his ball striking that left such a big impression, but the way he conducted himself off the course.
“I thought Jake’s talent was exceptional. He impressed me from day one and I could see he had what it took to go and compete at the highest level in America,” says Flynn, a former professional who knows all about golf scholarships having attended Western Texas College.
“I thought he had everything to go and be a success, just without a world ranking and that big tournament win. We ended up finding him a great spot. I think he can have a big career in the game.”
Breaking His Duck
Jake has that victory now, and it came in emphatic style at Miami Shores Country Club, where he shot a course-record 61 in the final round to win the Golfweek Miami Amateur. He “bottled” the 59 with pars on the last four holes.
This win has opened doors. First of all it meant he received an exemption to play in the South Beach International, one of the biggest amateur tournaments in the world. It also boosted his World Amateur Golf Ranking, which will help him get into bigger tournaments, including those back home in England, where he hopes to return in May.
This is not set in stone, of course. The pandemic has disrupted many of the team competitions because of travel restrictions, and Christmas in Warrington with his parents was not possible. He doesn’t seem overly fussed about the latter, which can be overcome with regular FaceTimes. What he’s really relishing is a full playing schedule in 2021.
“The good thing about it is the golf is only growing, the team’s only getting better,” says Jake. “We’ve got a strong team with plenty of strength in depth. The standard is pretty impressive. We played the Blue course at Doral recently and one of the guys in our team shot five-under off the back tees.”
Jake may have settled into Miami life pretty comfortably, but Warrington will always occupy a special place in his heart. He doesn’t miss cleaning cars at his dad’s garage, but he’ll never tire of playing Warrington and Delamere Forest in Cheshire, a place he credits for taking his game to the next level.
Back home is also where he gets to work with his coach, Craig Lea, a mentor from his college days at Myerscough in Preston and someone who’s played an important role in his development.
In America, he’s under the watchful eye of FAU’s head men’s golf coach, Ryan Jamison, and his all-round game is improving steadily. Coaching days are every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, with playing time on Friday and Saturday. In between, he’s studying for a degree in business management. The tuition alone may end up costing $30,000 over four years, but it would be thousands more without a scholarship. It’s incentivised, too, so the better Jake performs, the more money he’s likely to get towards it.
One Step At A Time
Jamison, who’s spent the last 16 years helping young players develop, has no doubts the investment will be a worthwhile. “We look at things from a holistic perspective,” he says. “It’s not just the technique that we’re coaching on a daily basis. We’re coaching how they perform, their course management, their nutrition, their sleep training, all these different facets that make such a difference.
“I saw Jake for the first time at the Boys’ Amateur Championship at Saunton, and I remember thinking he was incredibly accurate. He’ll need to continue to get better, but I think he’s further along than most freshmen that come on to the programme with his work ethic and how he allocates his time. I’m just encouraging him to be more curious and search for the little things to get better.”
Not everyone breezes through college straight on to the PGA Tour. For every Viktor Hovland or Collin Morikawa, there’s a whole bunch of college golfers who don’t end up forging a career on the major tours. However, Jamison is mindful of how you define “making it”. The overall percentage of graduates who become European Tour or PGA Tour players may be very low, but there are many other ways of judging the success of a golf scholarship.
Flynn agrees. “That degree that you earn really does stand you in good stead,” he says. “You have that to fall back on and that’s the key. A lot of golfers will turn pro and after a couple of years will realise they’re not good enough, which is absolutely fine. Everyone has got to dream and have something to follow.”
Flynn is also in no doubt that the American college system is “one hundred per cent” the best option for aspiring professional golfers. “The level of golf out there is unbelievable,” he adds. “I can’t stress that enough. These guys are playing three-round tournaments every week and you need to be double digits under par to have any chance of winning. You’re treated like a professional athlete and you’re surrounded by a bunch of other guys who are as good as, if not better, than you, so you’ve got something to strive towards.”
Jake has plenty to inspire him. Coach Jamison has seen a number of his students establish themselves on tour, including Maverick McNealy and Brandon Wu. He’s been “lucky with English kids”, too, having coached Richard Mansell and Ben Taylor during his time at Nova Southeastern.
“Making the Walker Cup in two years is one of my biggest goals,” says Jake. “But the big thing for me at the moment is learning from each event I play and focusing on my college results.”
He wouldn’t mind another crack at qualifying for The Open, too, having made the final stages in 2019, and then there’s the British Amateur Championship. “Step by step,” he says. An old head on young shoulders, for sure.