At first glance, the five young girls, clustered together at Cayce’s Par Tee Driving Range, seem unremarkable. They all appear bright, tanned and energetic as they chat and laugh and swing clubs, their long hair whipping in the breeze on a beautiful spring afternoon.
In fact, though, they are anything but “unremarkable.” The average male weekend golfer wants to steer clear of this crew – unless he enjoys having his ego trampled in a flurry of long drives, chip shots and birdies.
These young ladies all have their immediate, and in some cases, long-term, golf futures mapped out. Three – Lexington’s Lauren Stephenson, 15; North Augusta’s Jessica Hoang, 17; and Riley Lovorn, 16, of Anderson – have committed to play college golf for Clemson, where the Tigers’ women’s team will begin its inaugural season this fall. Nicole Chin, 17 and a junior at Dutch Fork High, hopes to choose between Furman, Wofford or U.S.C. She is hoping to earn both academic and athletic scholarships to attend these schools.
The fifth member of the group isn’t quite sure about college yet. But give Isabella Rawl, of Lexington, some time. She’s only 9, after all.
These are the faces, present and future, of female junior golfers in the Midlands and across South Carolina. They certainly defy the notion of “girls’ golf” as ponytails, whiffed shots and giggles.
“It’s amazing how the scores have come down. So many girls are playing really great golf now,” says Kevin Britt, whose eponymous Golf Academy is based at Par Tee, and who is the common denominator in this quintet. “I’ve seen a real upsurge the past six or seven years. You can’t believe how good they are.”
While he’s seen it happen, he is also, at least partially, responsible for it.
Ironic fact: Kevin, a 47-year-old native of Fort Myers, Fla., didn’t play golf until age 19 – two years older than any of his current students. “I started playing with my college roommates at Florida State,” he says. Those former roommates, like Kevin, are now all golf professionals.
Despite the late start, Kevin was hooked. After college, he worked from 1990 until 1995 as an assistant pro at Palmetto Dunes Golf Resort in Hilton Head before moving to Columbia to work for Jimmy Koosa at Irmo’s Weed Hill Driving Range. “At Hilton Head, you’d work with vacationers maybe one time, and then never see them again,” Kevin says. “I wanted to teach full-time and start building students’ games.”
While at Weed Hill, his young students included Dustin Johnson, now one of the PGA Tour’s top under-30 stars. Eight years ago, Kevin struck out on his own. Though he works with both sexes – he has about 40 full-time junior students – he soon realized the upside of working with girls.
Talk about a growth industry. “There are 16 or 17 colleges in South Carolina with women’s golf teams offering up to six scholarships each, and most don’t have enough players to fill their rosters,” he says. While girls’ golf locally and nationally is getting incrementally better, college-level girls players are the exception, not the rule.
According to S.C. Junior Golf Association managing director Chris Miller, tournament-ready boys’ players in the state number about 400 to the girls’ 125 to 140. “And that roughly 3:1 ratio pretty much holds true across the board of junior golf,” Chris says. Parents who want their daughter to get a free education should consider putting a golf club in her hands early.
After that, it doesn’t hurt to get them working with a teacher such as Kevin. “He’s the best-kept secret in South Carolina,” says Sammy Freeman, a teaching professional who works for Kevin. “He’ll have those girls playing on Sundays.” That is, on the LPGA Tour.
If not, perhaps they’ll still be involved in golf. Kevin’s first notable female student was Dinah Plyler of Irmo, who played at College of Charleston and today works for Addams Golf in Texas. Kevin also taught Kory and Kaci Thompson, former U.S.C. women’s team players and sisters of Web.com Tour player and former U.S.C. All-American Kyle Thompson. Nowadays, Kory Thompson is golf coach at Georgia Regents College and often recruits Kevin’s players.
By his estimation, Kevin currently works with eight of the top 15 junior girls in South Carolina. Edgefield’s McKenzie Talbert is committed to Clemson; Spartanburg’s Anne Taylor Hough won the Peggy Kirk Bell tournament at Clemson; Lexington’s Sydney Legacy won the S.C. Class 4A high school championship, as a junior; Natalie Srinivasan, who attends Dorman High in Spartanburg, is the state’s top ninth grader.
“They’re all very coachable, and they want to get better,” Kevin says. That, the girls say, is why they come to him. “He’s good with young people,” Lauren Stephenson says. “He’s helped me so much in the past eight years.”
She laughs and adds, “Kevin is like my second dad; I listen to him better because he’s NOT my dad.”
Lauren, part of the Lexington High program that has claimed seven straight state 4A titles, began playing, as most kids do, with a parent: her father, Charles. Her grandfather, also a golfer, told her, “You have a really good swing,” and paid for her first lessons from Kevin at age 8.
Despite the day when she shanked a ball and hit him while he was giving a lesson to someone else, Lauren says that she quickly absorbed his teaching and philosophy.
“He doesn’t teach the same swing to everyone; he works with what you have,” she says. “His greatest impact has been having me not thinking too much on the course. He believes you do better when you’re having fun.”
Nicole, who also started playing with her father, James, is another eight-year Kevin student. “He’s able to connect with us,” she says, “and I like his personality.” During her first lesson, Kevin – who wears a serious expression behind his wraparound sunglasses – taught Nicole how to bounce a golf ball on the face of her wedge before he looked at her swing.
“That’s good for hand-eye coordination,” she says. It’s also … well, fun.
Lauren and Nicole, in turn, brought in Riley, a friend of theirs, and Jessica, who was recommended to him by Clemson’s women’s coach J.T. Horton. “I had tendonitis, and he helped me to overcome that by changing my swing,” Jessica says. “He always says, ‘I’m here to help you get better.’”
Jessica followed her father, Dave, and older brother, Dustin, to the golf course at age 6. Riley, who started at 10, was hooked when her dad, James, promised Riley and her older sister $500 to the first one to break 50 for nine holes.
“I figured it’d be a year or more,” James Lovorn says. “It took Riley just three months.” She used the money to buy new golf clubs.
The charmer of Kevin’s bunch is Isabella, a tiny (4 foot, 1 inch, 55 pounds), soft-spoken youngster – nicknamed “Munchkin” by Kevin and Sammy – who discovered the driving range through family members when she was 3. Now she hits tee shots 175 yards, and while Kevin says all his players are competitive, perhaps none is as much so as Isabella. “I like to beat people,” she says with a smile.
Kevin adds, “She won the S.C. Junior Golf Association Pee Wee title and the city championship, and the trophy was as big as she is.”
Isabella sounds wise beyond her 9 years when asked about why she enjoys golf. “You have good days and bad days,” she says, “but it’s fun – and you meet new friends.”
Not so far in the future Isabella, like her older compatriots, could turn “fun” into a scholarship, perhaps even a career. Meanwhile, the girls enjoy golf in part because Kevin makes sure getting better never overshadows the enjoyment.
“I think Kevin has a unique communication with his students,” says James Chin, Nicole’s father. “He doesn’t say a lot; he just encourages them to swing the right way. Nicole once asked him, ‘Can you explain the golf swing to me?’ And Kevin said, ‘Sure – but I’m not going to.’ When she asked why, he said, ‘It would confuse you and mess you up. Just do as I say, and you’ll be fine.’”
Nicole says she aspires to be more than fine. “I’m hoping for a future in golf, either playing the LPGA Tour or as a sports psychologist or coach,” she says. “Kevin has inspired me to carry on a future in golf. I’d like to follow in his footsteps.”
In Columbia and at Par Tee, the future of girls’ golf, it seems, is in good shape.