When Brandi Jackson began pursuing a college golf career, the recruiting landscape looked nothing like it does today.
“I think every bit of our recruiting was handwritten, putting letters in the mail,” says Jackson, who enjoyed a successful career at Furman University. “After your (high school) junior year, college coaches would make phone calls. You’d play throughout the summer and coaches would watch you. Then you went on a couple visits and made your decision. That’s it.”
Times have changed. Not only has college recruiting moved into the digital age, but the responsibility for being an attractive candidate has shifted toward the golfer. That’s a heavy burden when the process starts as early as middle school.
That’s where Jackson comes in. After four years at Furman and a couple years on the LPGA Tour, she went to work for a large recruiting service, speaking to parents about the process of pursuing a scholarship. But soon she realized parents needed more than just the broad brush strokes.
“I knew more of what the college coaches wanted,” she says. “I wanted to be more in the background and consult players from behind the scenes. I also wanted to use my relationships with the coaches to help connect the players. ”
Today she operates Brandi Jackson Golf, working with individual players and families who need help navigating the process. A young golfer with hopes of a scholarship needs a video, a resume and a plan for reaching out to college golf coaches.
Jackson, who is based in Greenville, S.C., offers a variety of options, including coaching, consulting and mentorship. The first step is knowing when to seek some guidance.
“If you’re a top-ranked eighth-grader or ninth-grader in the state in your class, you better be prepared that it’s going to start,” she says.
Jackson, who works with mostly female clients, tells parents to take a deep breath at the start of the process.
“Keep it as simple as possible, and take the stress off the player,” she says. “I try to keep them relaxed.”
Jackson takes it from there, tending to details that help refine a player’s overall game, such as developing a pre-shot routine and setting goals. The earlier, the better.
“When coaches go to tournaments, they’re already thinking, who’s my next ninth-grader?” she says.
Josh McCumber operates a Florida-based college consulting service geared toward junior-age boys. Like Jackson, McCumber was a successful college player at the University of Florida, later serving as an assistant coach there and playing on the Web.com Tour. As a result, he has an extensive network of coaching contacts. He knows how junior golfers can make the right impression on a college coach – something most teenagers don’t know how to accomplish on their own.
“If you want a coach to come to a tournament you’re playing in, my advice is to say, ‘I’d love for you to see me play this summer. Where will you be recruiting? I will make sure that I play in that tournament,'” McCumber says.
Like most consultants, he evaluates a player’s golf skills during an initial consultation. Equally important, however, is where the young player is in his personal growth. Having a good head for the game is a must, but so are a firm handshake and the instinct to make eye contact with an adult. McCumber builds on those traits to help his clients impress during an interview, learn how to network and build relationships.
“Most kids aren’t going on to play professional golf,” he says. “Kids who can take their athletic ability to college can parlay that and the relationships they build into a job. If they can learn this now by reaching out to 35 or 40 schools, they’re going to be so far ahead of the game going into the work place one day.”
College coaches cannot contact high school golfers prior to their junior years, but McCumber points out that prospective student athletes are free to get in touch with coaches whenever they wish. A high schooler can email his grades, tournament results or other relevant activities to a college coach at any time.
If it all seems a little too much, too soon, you won’t get an argument from most coaches and consultants. But that’s how business is done.
“I don’t like it,” McCumber says about the recruitment of ninth and 10th graders. “You’re not driving a car yet, you don’t know what freedom is. That scares me. If you have a kid who’s a really good player, he’s probably not going to lose his game, but you don’t know that. It’s a slippery slope.”
It’s reasonable to wonder whether most 15- or 16-year-olds could make a favorable impression on a college coach, who is surely looking for signs of adult characteristics.
“They are going to be a little rough around the edges at that point, and coaches understand that,” Jackson says. “Are they mature enough to sit down and have an adult conversation with a coach? Most of the time the better players can.”
So what does a college coach look for in a teen golfer? Jackson pointed out four characteristics coaches seek:
- Is the player willing to learn and take direction? Coaches don’t want to spend four years with a player who isn’t interested in growing.
- Love for the game. Jackson says not all female golfers exhibit a passion for the game. They have to love the grind of playing and practicing. Players must show they love to compete.
- Coaches look for signs of this during recruiting visits. They don’t want players who turn to Mom and Dad to handle their business, golf-related or otherwise.
- Gratitude and humility. College coaches want their players to appreciate the opportunity they are given. Jackson says some scholarship players feel entitled. Humility goes a long way.
Division I men’s golf programs can award four-and-a-half scholarships, while women’s programs can offer six, so full rides are the exception. Because many potential collegiate golfers come from affluent backgrounds, aid is sometimes less important than finding the best academic environment.
To find the best fit, McCumber says, it’s best to start with a broad list of schools.
“Be patient,” he says. “Keep focusing on what you can control and the right situation will come along.”