Coaching Boy Wonder: Lessons on Raising One of Golf’s Young Phenoms

Paul Vilips isn’t the sort of person you actually interview. Rather, you make the suggestion of a question and you brace yourself for whatever direction his precise memory and unrelenting candor might lead you. The father of Karl Vilips, arguably the best 15-year-old golfer in the nation according to both Golfweek and the World Amateur Golf Ranking, can talk about his son at length, and he isn’t shy about poking holes into the sophisticated and sometimes over-coached world of junior golf he’s witnessed first hand.

Although the American Junior Golfing Association was conceived in the mid-1970s and the first credible golfing academies were erected a decade later from an idea championed by David Leadbetter, there were actually very few organized initiatives around 10 years ago when Paul was first showing 4 ½ year-old Karl how to hold a golf club.

“Nowadays, things are much more detailed and outlined for parents,” says James Hong, director of junior golf programs at Harbor Links Golf Course in Port Washington, N.Y. “There’s a lot more information that’s available. We hear all about these advancements in golf instruction over the last 10 years. But in my opinion, the biggest advancements I’ve noticed have all happened in junior golf. If you were trying to raise a junior 10 years ago, or even five years ago, you were stepping around land mines, hoping you were making educated decisions.”

Back then, U.S. Kids Golf was barely in its infancy. The organization most directly associated with helping families introduce young kids into golf ran its first tournament only a handful of years before Karl hit his first golf shot. As for Perth, Australia, where Karl was raised, hardly any thought at all was given to the notion of growing the game.

That was just one of many complications Paul had to be concerned about, but it was the least distressing. By the time Karl Vilips was born, Paul’s father had passed and his mother was suffering from dementia. As for Karl’s mother, she returned to her home in Indonesia after a custody battle when Karl was just 15 months old, leaving Paul to raise an infant alone with only the help of a popular parenting book to guide him.

The difficulties Paul faced as a single dad living off a very modest disability pension have been written about before by journalists who can’t help but be interested in a life marred by financial hardships. Paul had been in the workforce 25 years as an overseas migration agent and was briefly imprisoned in Zimbabwe while protecting his clients. The experience left him emotionally shaken and ultimately led to his decision to close down his business in 2001.

To his credit, Paul doesn’t mind being repeatedly asked to describe the hard times we went through, but I think he was genuinely glad to move off the topic of his past and discuss the complicated choices all parents face when encouraging their kids to pursue their dreams as golfers.

Our conversation, which lasted nearly two hours, appears virtually in it’s entirety but has been lightly edited for clarity. I also spoke to Karl separately and have included some of his remarks, along with other sources of information that I think adds valuable insight into Karl’s young, but promising career in the game.

How the environment of junior golf has evolved over the last decade

Paul Vilips: It’s become absolutely massive. If you’re from the U.S. you’re more aware of how big junior golf is because of U.S. Kids Golf. And generally, there’s a lot more opportunities in the U.S. for young kids to play because of the hard work that U.S. Kids Golf have done. But they were in their relative infancy when Karl was six. No one here [in Australia] even knew of them. Back here we didn’t even know that six year olds could have full sets of 14 clubs. We didn’t know that parents of children that age would be taking it so seriously and getting their kids professional coaching.

What the situation was like in Australia when Karl began showing an interest in the game

Paul: When he was five years old, the golf club that I was a member of didn’t welcome children. Under no circumstances were children allowed to play. So Karl would sit beside me in the golf cart while I played. And every time he’d be busting my balls about wanting to have a few hits. On one occasion when we were out playing at dusk we literally had the entire course to ourselves. So there we are at dusk and we’re at one of the particular holes. Karl is begging me to have a hit and I said, ‘No, mate, you can’t. Besides, my clubs are too long for you.’ And he says, ‘but, Dad, I snuck my clubs into your bag. They easily slide down the bottom.’ At that point, what do you do? He’s going to hit one off a tee so it’s not like he’s going to damage anything. Plus, there’s nobody out there. So I told him to have a go.

That week I was scheduled to play in the semifinals of the club match play championship. After I won my match the club manager finds me and says, ‘I snuck out there under the suspicion that you might let your boy have a hit. So when your membership comes up for renewal, I’m not going to let you renew.’

Wow, talk about a bit rough. You know, kids are supposed to be encouraged to play the game and everybody’s complaining about how golf’s dying - what’s the harm? So I ended up missing out on playing the final of the club championship and we had to find a new course to play from. Fortunately, the new club we joined did allow junior memberships.

Teaching Karl Vilips to appreciate his first set of clubs

Paul: Karl started off playing with a basic half set that he had to save up for. He originally had these little clubs you buy individually. They usually come with a yellow shaft and retail for only $25 a club at the pro shops. I had gotten Karl three of these little clubs - a putter, a wood and a 7-iron when he was four and a half.

When it was time to get him full set of clubs we couldn’t just buy them. For one thing, we weren’t rolling in money. At the pro shop, there was huge bin of second hand balls so obviously they had to get their stock from someone. So we ended up figuring out how much they would give us for any found balls and factor that against the cost of the clubs. So one club is $25 and they were giving Karl a dollar for three balls. So that’s 75 balls. Well, that’s no problem. We went into the rough at The Cut Golf Club south of Perth - one of Australia’s toughest courses cause it literally abuts the Indian Ocean coastline, much like Pebble Beach does with the Pacific. On this course, the wind would come off the ocean every afternoon. With nine blind holes, the novices would typically lose a dozen balls to the right; the better golfers, the ones that tend to hook, would lose some to the left. So we’d just go into the rough on the first and tenth tees and come out with however many balls we needed. This ended up being a pretty good gig. Within a short period of time Karl was able to buy a half set of clubs for $200 dollars, and that took only about a week of scavenging to round up 600 balls.

Paul begins to take Karl out to the course to play regularly

Paul: Karl started playing in the under eights competition in Perth when he was six years old and would typically shoot 45 for nine holes. Over in Perth, the six year olds were playing off the ladies tees which is over 5,000 yards on average. I read somewhere that the winner of the U.S. Kids Golf World Championships that year shot an average score of 36 per nine holes. I was wondering why these kids were so good, but what I hadn’t realized was that these youngsters participating at U.S. Kids events would play courses that only measure 1,000 yards for nine holes.

I had to find out for myself what Karl was actually capable of. So I went to their website, looked at their scorecards and the courses they were holding for tournaments, replicated those yardages onto our course, and said to Karl, ‘let’s see what you can shoot.’

I figured if Karl could shoot the same scores or better than the previous year’s champion, we’d see if we could raise the money to send him to the championships. I wasn’t going to make any ambitious plans for Karl’s game and have others fund those dreams based on a parent’s over-inflated opinion of their son’s game. There are simply too many families around the world who believe their youngsters are the second coming of Tiger Woods.

Time after time it would take him about a half hour to play our shortened nine-hole course and he would shoot the same scores (give or take a couple of shots) as the winner of the previous year. So we raised the money and went there. He was impeccable from tee to green, but he putted like crap and came in seventh at the 2008 U.S. Kids World Championship at Pinehurst. Still, he had the lowest score in one of the rounds he played, so we found out he really can shoot under par. Coincidentally, we also found out he was the only kid there amongst the leaders who had a half set [of clubs].

Before we returned the next year, we made it a point to get Karl a full set of clubs. Getting specially-designed clubs from U.S. Kids Golf shipped to Australia was prohibitively expensive, so I set out to make a custom set which would fit Karl’s height and be the perfect shaft flex for a kid of his strength.

For the irons, we got the TaylorMade Burner Plus. They came with steel shafts so we ripped those out and put in a set of Roger Maltbie Lite Ladies shafts that I bought online for $15 each and shortened them accordingly.

As far as woods were concerned, I saw some ladies Wilson woods that came with a really firm ladies flex in the clearance bin. So I thought to myself, I’ll cut these down. It took a lot of guesswork, but I got it right - Karl was just smashing them. When we went back to Pinehurst the next year, Karl won the competition by three shots.

How the environment for junior golf in Australia lagged behind the United States

Paul: When Karl first started playing golf, the clubs in Perth were having him and kids his age playing off the ladies tees, as I mentioned earlier. The organizers just couldn’t come to grips with the fact that they needed to change. Unfortunately, change doesn’t come easy and I alienated myself with a few junior golf administrators when I tried to make them understand what the U.S. was doing with their juniors so that they can experience the joy of making par, or heaven forbid, a birdie.

At eight years old, Karl got his first official handicap which was 26. When we moved to Sydney, they deemed him too good to play kids his own age, so they insisted that he play with the big boys and that he play off the back tees. Now Karl was a good player at eight, and even shot 81 off the back tees in one tournament, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a child. When you watch him walking down the fairway, the sixteen and eighteen year olds are 100 yards ahead of him because they have nothing in common with him to talk about. To my way of thinking, this was unacceptable.

If Paul ever regrets not being able to give Karl a more traditional childhood

Paul: You can’t change what’s happened. I always try to accept the notion that if you’re given a bad hand, you try to make the best you can off it. I would gladly swap all the fame he has now for him to have had a normal childhood. Believe me, I was never interested in pursuing fame. The problem that I had was that I bred an incredibly competitive kid. Right from the get go, no matter what he did, he needed to finish first and to be the best at it - whether it was tennis, tee ball, cricket or football.

I didn’t have to encourage it, but I had to accommodate it. So Karl spent his early years playing tee ball and tennis, and the competitive golf actually followed the other sports he was involved in. He was so hooked on golf after playing in the evenings with me for a year or two that I had to find out where I can get him playing competitively. Turned out that Perth had a 9-hole competition that catered to kids aged six to eight every couple of months. And it was just amazing watching him competing against guys like Min Woo Lee and Fred Lee at that age. Even then, Karl would get angry if he hit a bad shot. It would be so funny to see me telling a six year old to cool his heels, but it was necessary. I’m thinking how does this predisposition to having to be the best - how does it work? It’s not something you plan for, but regardless of what it was, he had to be the best. At school, the teachers would always say to me that Karl thinks that by finishing first on an exam, that he’s the best. But you have to tell him to get the answers right. The fact is, everything had to be a competition for him.

Looking back on it now, golf was something that we were able to do together and we did. We’d be finishing our rounds as the sun set over the Indian Ocean, long before he began to play competitively. It was a magical time when things were so simple and we didn’t need to worry ourselves with what the future might bring for a kid of his potential.

Seeing as how Karl Vilips grew up as an only child in a single parent home, it was only natural that his interest in golf would emerge from the bond he had with his dad. Specifically, Karl told me, “Ever since I had picked up a golf club at the age of five I had fallen in love with the game. Going out on the course with my dad at a young age taught me the basics and I just loved doing it. The critical thinking, and the fact that there was room to improve made me dedicate myself. Doing something on my own also meant a lot.”

How involved Paul is with Karl’s coaching

Paul: I’m still over-seeing Karl’s game now, even from 15,000 miles away. Before Karl started at Saddlebrook Prep last year, we all agreed that I continue to have input into Karl’s swing because, as his father, the buck stops with me. We work as a team and if I see something happening with his swing which has perhaps gone unnoticed, I discuss things with his coach at the academy.

There are horror stories having to do with good juniors losing their game at academies. I can remember this one junior at an academy that Karl used to belong to. Initially, this Japanese kid was kicking Karl’s ass in the tournaments that were being played there. This kid had the best proximity to the hole from 100 yards out that I’ve ever seen and he was routinely shooting 66 off the white tees in the under 14 age group. Meanwhile Karl was shooting around par, or a couple under.

Then a coach who worked there started messing with that kids natural swing. I had to come back to the states seven months later because Karl was suddenly starting to shoot in the 80s (as was this other kid). In what was a very generous arrangement, the academy allowed me to take over Karl’s coaching whilst he finished out that school year and he was back to shooting 65s within a few months again. As for this other kid, two years later he was struggling to break 80 and it’s only this year that he’s starting to shoot around par again.

Advice for parents trying to find adequate coaching

Paul: As a father of a prodigy, there are two choices. If you want the world to love you, say yes to everybody. Everyone is all smiles and happy, and they can all pretend that everything’s alright. But it’s a shame if they mess up your kid’s game like they did with that junior who might not never get a full ride to a top college now cause he can never get back his natural swing.

Then you have a situation like I have with Karl. If Karl doesn’t make it, our family doesn’t have money. He can’t get a job at his daddy’s law firm if he doesn’t pan out as a golfer. There’s a chance that he doesn’t get a full ride to college and that he’ll end up stacking shelves at Target. So I have to protect the integrity of Karl’s game. That is why Karl is considered the number one 15 year old on the planet, and it’s due to the fact that I was prepared to step up and take full responsibility for his coaching. I didn’t want to find myself in a situation 15 years from now where I look back in regret, wishing that I had spoken up and made myself unpopular.

If I had the means, I would’ve had Karl work with a private coach from the get-go. There’s a huge difference between the coaches at golf academies and private coaches. With a private coach - you are choosing that individual. At a golf academy you don’t choose the coach; instead, you’re simply choosing the reputation of the academy. Karl’s lucky that he’s at a top-notch academy now, but getting to this point has been hit and miss.

Why private coaching would’ve been better for Karl

Paul: I would have had Karl with the best coach available and he would’ve been a lot better, a lot younger, but then possibly he wouldn’t have had the “hunger” if things had been better financially speaking.

A lot of Karl’s friends do come from very good families, and a lot of them do employ coaches like a Cameron McCormick or a Butch Harmon, and those kids play golf at a really good level. But therein comes another question. Are these kids playing at their absolute maximum ability because their parents have had the financial wherewithal to get them the best of everything - to get them playing at the best tournaments, to get them the best coaching. Will they plateau or keep getting better? Whereas I know with Karl, because he’s had my unqualified coaching, he hasn’t begun to touch his absolute best abilities yet.

In the next phase of Karl’s development as a golfer, he’ll begin working directly with McCormick, Jordan Spieth’s longtime coach, in April, as part of a new relationship with Golf Australia. McCormick will oversee Karl’s game through monthly visits while Karl’s coach at Saddlebrook will work with him directly on whatever changes are being recommended.

Becoming a world class amateur golfer and maintaining that edge requires quite a lot of sacrifice. Karl’s daily routine, as you can surmise for yourself, is a grind. Discounting all the times during the year that he’s traveling to tournament sites and competing for two days, he’s usually working on his game from 12:30 to 5:00 pm. That’s followed by three to four hours of homework. “It’s very tough but I want to go to an academically strong college or university,” he says. “Sometimes it is a challenge but I’ve accepted it, with the understanding that I have a bigger outcome in mind, and that the goals I want to achieve will be worth the hard work.”

How Karl organizes his practice sessions to work on different parts of his game

Paul: When he’s with me, he’ll spend half an hour on the range hitting balls. Then we’ll spend at least an hour on the short game. That’s what I focus on - the short game. It doesn’t put stress on the major muscle groups and it’s very light in regards to being load baring and, obviously, it makes the biggest difference in your score. Afterwards we’ll go out and play for nine holes.

When Karl was here for a couple of months before he left for the U.S. to start his 2016 season, our pattern was to go down [to the facility] for 4 or 5 hours a day, do an hour or so on the technical side of things, but always go out and play a minimum of nine holes. When Karl was halfway through his nine, he would let me know if he was going to play nine more or whether he wanted to be picked up. The whole point of this process is designed to give Karl immediate results from his practice.

Now at Saddlebrook, the elite group, which consists of the five best players there, spends a half hour on the range and then they go out and play nine or 18 holes, depending on the time of the year. So, again, they’re spending less time on the actual technical side of things in an effort to get the boys out there playing, to experience real conditions cause you know, you don’t always have perfectly flat lies when you’re actually playing.

Developing actual playing skills on the course was something we have always focused on going back to when Karl was six or seven. If he mishit a ball, we’d drop another and figure out how to play it properly. But the rule we had between us is that we’d always go into the rough and play the original ball. What I saw from a lot of the juniors was that if a ball went into the rough, a lot of them would just throw it back out into the fairway and say to themselves that in a competition, I’m never going to hit it in the rough. So people sometimes wonder why Karl can seem to play these backhanded shots and other things of that sort, it’s due to the fact that he had to learn how to get a ball out of every conceivable situation in the rough right from the get go.

I asked Paul if the situation with overbearing parents was as bad as it was depicted in the Netflix documentary, The Short Game

Paul: Because golf isn’t a team sport, there was no manual showing us parents how to deal with kids who showed potential, let alone any support from the golfing fraternity itself. It’s been a learn-as-you-go journey these past 10 years, and after having watched that movie, it’s apparent that some parents are actually getting worse rather than better at dealing with it all.

Sure, I’ve seen loads of ugly stuff on the course including seeing a dad whack his seven-year-old son behind the legs while walking off the green when he didn’t think anyone was looking. Watching a different father bring his son to tears because he couldn’t get out of a bunker. To be fair, U.S. Kids Golf is very proactive in this area and deals with these cases accordingly.

Still, I remember a particularly bad episode in 2011 at the U.S. Kids World’s in Pinehurst [which Karl won with rounds of 73, 70, 67 in the boys 9-year-old division]. Karl had a practice round in the morning and disappeared at about 11 am, having finished his preparation. Both us came back at dusk to work on his putting in the cool of the evening. And there was a Korean boy that had been there from the morning. His dad asked us where we had been all this time and Karl said, ‘we had lunch with my friends and then we swam in the pool. Afterwards we watched some TV and played some Xbox. And now we figured we would come down and do some putting cause it’s not as hot right now.’ This kid’s father said, ‘yeah right. You’ve been practicing somewhere. There’s no way you can be playing as well as you do unless you’re practicing 10 to 12 hours a day.’ That boy’s mother and father were Olympic athletes for Korea and they had this mentality - if you’re going to play golf, or any other sport, you’re going to have to practice it religiously so that everything becomes a reflex. Now that kid’s dad was a total maniac. Two years later they were playing a tournament on the west coast. It turned out the boy was cheating and they caught him miscounting his scores. Anyway, the boy got a one year ban for that and his dad received a longer ban. Frankly, it’s just an example of disgraceful behavior by a dad who is over-the-top, and who was killing his kid with practice.

However, bad behavior doesn’t just come from the parents. I’ve always been somewhat of a maverick and have been willing to try different things with Karl, and have been prepared to see him lose tournaments at a young age if it meant learning a lesson. Methods have included confiscating a club whenever he disrespected it. Of course that became somewhat of a moot point during one memorable round, with me holding three of his clubs including his putter. It didn’t prevent him from dropping 15-foot bombs using the leading edge of his wedge and breaking 80 from the men’s tees as an 11-year-old.

Not long ago I began reading about how some of the more celebrated golfing academies in the U.S. were structured. In doing so I was actually appalled at how much time junior golfers were encouraged to spend on the range working on chasing the perfect swing. After speaking to James Hong who teaches a variety of young golfers, including those just starting out, I began to realize just how broad a problem this continues to be.

“When I’m traveling I do see instances where the kids are on the range and all they’re doing is working on their swing. And it’s true, they’re not on the golf course enough, they’re not developing the playing skills,” says James. “You wouldn’t see that in almost any other sport. Kids would be on the field of play right away.”

“I had this happen to me recently,” he goes on to say, “where a couple of kids I teach kept looking at the screen because they want to see the numbers on Foresight, they want to see the ball tracer. It’s instant feedback. Even as they’re coming in and warming up for their lesson they’re waiting for the thing to reset before hitting their next shot instead of loosening up and getting a feel for their swing. So I just shut everything off. And I asked them to hit a ball and to tell me if they thought it was a good shot. And during the first five minutes, they were literally lost because they were so reliant on the monitor grading the quality of their strike. But it was equally amazing how quickly they were able to get over that and their learning just jumped to another level once their intuition kicked in.”

On this topic, Paul is of the same mind as James. When asked to identify what skill is most lacking in juniors, he said, without hesitation, it’s the short game. “They spend all their time on the range, and the range is not where you learn the short game,” he says. “Having a great short game is critical because when you’re playing at this level that Karl plays, the courses are so long that you’re using a lot more club into the greens and, consequently, your greens in regulation go down and your scrambling abilities get put to the test.”

By and large, Karl Vilips spent a significant portion of his time facing older competition any time he teed the ball up in Australia. The junior golfing body in Sydney, for instance, insisted that he play more experienced golfers, a point of contention for Paul, who wanted Karl to learn how to compete against kids his own age and beat them by big margins. “So when people assume that Karl must’ve had hundreds of wins,” he says, “it’s not as many as you would think.”

Still, the experience helped to harden Karl as a competitor. In addition to the 38 Australian tournaments he won before the age of 12, Karl won four Junior World Championships in the United States.

“As a young golfer I understood quickly what it took to win against the best of my age group,” says Karl. “As I stepped onto the AJGA circuit I began to realize that it would be a challenge and had to take a reality check. These players were good and I had to get stronger, not only physically but also mentally. I had to dedicate more time to specific parts of my game to play against these top level juniors. As I did so, me game drastically improved, my misses became smaller and my expectations grew. I would say that the predominant reason for my improving my game was playing against players that were a lot better than me.”

Karl has racked up four wins since moving on to the AJGA. This past Summer, he decided to enter a Florida qualifier for the U.S. Amateur. He ended up shooting a two round total of 135 and earned a spot in the elite USGA event that was held at historic Oakland Hills Country Club. At 14 years old he was the youngest competitor in the field.

About that surprising performance that earned him a trip to the U.S. Amateur

Paul: Last year I said to Karl that our goal is to get you into the U.S. Junior Am. He just missed out on qualifying for it after being crook as a dog with the flu, so he just had to wear that one on the chin.

Without asking me, he registered himself into a U.S. Am qualifier in Orange County and there were guys like Andy Zhang (who qualified for the U.S. Open at age 14) in the field. Well, Karl shot rounds of 67 and 68, and during the last few holes he was hitting and running because there was a thunderstorm bearing down on them and he didn’t want to have to wait it out. He even said to me that he could’ve birdied the last couple of holes had he not been just running up to the ball and hitting the shot without using the range finder. And sure enough, the guys who didn’t finish had to wait five hours before they could get back out again.

When he got to the site of the U.S. Amateur, he didn’t set any expectations for himself. He putted poorly in the first round and shot 74 I think. As for the second round which was on the tougher South course, he matched Curtis Luck’s 71. As for the experience itself, he absolutely loved it.

What people sometimes don’t realize is that Karl is actually pushing himself and he’s telling me the tournaments he wants to compete in (or not). He wants to play the Western Am and the U.S. Am again. This year he’s also going to play a qualifier for the U.S. Open for the first time. If a miracle happens and he does qualify, it also gets him invitations to other elite amateur tournaments irrespective of his current ranking.

I asked Karl Vilips if he preferred playing prestigious events like the Jones Cup where even par is considered an excellent score, or going to tournaments that require him to make a ton of birdies. He says, “I enjoy playing a mix of both tournaments. Sometimes I enjoy pushing myself and testing my game against elite college players and high level juniors. But occasionally I also like to go low and compete against the players around my level like the AJGA invitationals. The high level amateur events are fun, don't get me wrong, but sometimes you need to go back to your level so you can get that winning feeling.”

The next three years are going to be a grind for Karl. He’s very much aware of how talented he is and he wants his junior amateur record to reflect his potential. “By the time I turn 18 years old, I want to have won multiple AJGA invitationals and at least one [USGA] amateur event,” he says. “Hopefully I would have signed to my intended college and plan to attend in 2020. I would also like to have accomplished becoming the AJGA player of the year and a Junior Presidents Cup member.”

For now, Karl Vilips is simply doing his best to juggle the demands of being a world-class amateur golfer with just being a seemingly normal teenager. Like almost all kids his age, he’s very active on social media. It’s just that this particular teen has over 40,000 followers on Instagram and YouTube combined. He says the most common question he gets asked is how he’s able to hit it so far. And given his stated goal of playing on the PGA Tour, his list of followers, and the questions they have about his extraordinary talent, is only going to grow.

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