IMG Academy - honing students' golf games, and their brains
29 May 2021
by Will Doctor of AmateurGolf.com

What do the following professional golfers have in common?

Byeong Hun An, Emiliano Grillo, Cheng Tsung Pan, Peter Uihlein, Paula Creamer, Sean O’Hair, Nelly Korda, and Casey Wittenberg.

Beside the fact they enjoyed success in amateur and professional golf, all of these players attended IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida as high school amateurs to fine-tune their game before making waves on the pro level.

They took the same academic courses as everyone: math, science, and all the others. IMG is respected academically, and the average student at the academy scores higher on the SAT and ACT than the national average.

Similar academic/athletic academies are thriving in the developmental industry, but IMG is the only one that combines education, golf, and fitness all together on the same campus. There isn’t one wasted minute, which is expected for players wishing to compete on the collegiate level.

“I would say time management was a big part of my success so far. Being a college golfer, you travel a lot, and you have to be efficient with time to excel in both school and golf. IMG really prepared me in that sense,” said Kaito Onishi, a senior playing for the University of Southern California. Onishi graduated from IMG Academy in 2017 and made an immediate impact on the Trojans squad. He was the 2018 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year and was first-team Pac-12 in 2019.

IMG Academy has an enviable track record of success that no other academy can boast. The academy has produced more than 1,000 junior golf tournament victories and has sent more athletes to universities on scholarship than any other academy in America. After IMG’s director of golf David Whalen, former swing coach of Jessica Korda, and Paula Creamer left IMG in 2015, the academy struggled with direction.

That all changed in 2019 when IMG decided to hire new director, Kevin Craggs, whose resume included more than 31 years of experience coaching some of the best players on tour. He currently is Colin Montgomerie’s coach and has built a solid new foundation for the academy.

“First and foremost, we’ve built the academy around three primary platforms: education, encouragement, and evidence,” Craggs said. “People can only be educated through knowledge, wisdom, and information. We do know that encouragement is a powerful tool in changing behavior. But everything we do from assessing a student’s game to course strategy improvements is all evidence-based.”

- IMG photo
If there is one thing competitive amateur golfers are looking for, it is assurance that well-designed practice will directly correlate to lower scores on the course. However, the most essential part of Craggs curriculum is the evidence. “We use evidence from data to help athletes better understand what needs to improve, and most importantly, the process of how to improve it,” said Scott Bettger, who is in his 23rd year coaching at the academy. He has seen the ebbs and flows of leadership and is confident Craggs has the academy on track for success.

Junior golf is extremely competitive in the upper-class years of high school. If you are a student who is yet to commit to playing college golf heading into senior, life can get more hectic than is necessary for teenagers. Craggs’ three primary platforms were developed so student-athletes stay in the moment and control the controllables daily. Just ask Gregory Solhaug, a late bloomer in junior golf who did not receive a scholarship offer to play at the next level until late in his high school career at IMG.

“I was a late bloomer in junior golf. Around my junior year, I felt like I started playing better as I got bigger and stronger,” said Solhaung, now a freshman on the University of Oregon men’s golf team. “IMG helped me a lot, and all the coaches there made me believe in myself even before I started playing my best.”

Like many students who attend IMG Academy for golf, there is only one benefit that matches the education: the unbeatable year-round Florida weather. A quarter of IMG’s students come from the northeast region of the U.S. to avoid a long, wintery off-season, and they hope to gain year-round attention from colleges. Unlike anywhere in the U.S., IMG organizes a junior golf tour, formed in 2010, that travels around Florida (and occasionally the northeast) during the school year.

Andrew Parr, director of the IMG Junior Golf Tour, has been committed to ensuring the tour is a pathway to the higher levels of the game since it started in 2010. The tour was formed to help players succeed on and off the golf course and prepare them for college.

“We are running about 25 events per year now,” said Parr. “Kids definitely have more options if they don’t want to travel and stay close to home. Our goal has always been to provide high-quality playing opportunities, and the key is to provide these opportunities where kids are actually playing for something. In our case, that means AJGA performance-based entry status. What this means for a kid is, they can play in our events to qualify for bigger ones.”

For Parr, it is all about giving junior golfers opportunities to move up by providing tournaments that bring actual value. Even when the tour runs a few events in the northeast in early fall, an event’s winner earns an exemption to the Northern Junior Championship. The tour understands the mindset of moving up in rankings starts early for junior golfers.

“I played in that tour a lot when I was under 15. All of the events on the IMG Junior Golf Tour helped me find a way to play against a pretty decent field and get those competitive juices flowing,” added Solhaug. “So playing on that tour was a convenient way for me to prepare for bigger events in the future. The courses we played are all in great shape, so it was always a good test.”

Kevin Craggs (IMG photo)
But it wasn’t until Craggs arrived at IMG that the academy began taking full advantage of the tour. Craggs has taken additional steps to make sure the academy’s amateur golfers are always in competitive mode and not just beating balls on the range.

“The tour is now encompassed in our curriculum where students play seven mandatory events throughout the year which instills and grows the competitive attributes of our students,” Craggs said. “IMG is not a swing factory. It is a program to develop players to improve their game and become well-rounded people.”

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