As college golf recruiting evolves, camps take on added value – even for elites
Before Pepperdine senior Derek Hitchner developed into one of the top players in the country, he was discovered, at least by Waves head coach Michael Beard, at a golf camp.
Back in 2015, Hitchner, then a rising high-school sophomore, attended the Kerry Cup, an annual week-long camp for prep-aged golfers in Waterville, Ireland. Beard was among the college coaches on site that year.
“I remember seeing Derek and thought I really liked this guy, just his demeanor,” Beard recalled. “He wasn’t highly ranked at the time, but he ended up getting better and better.”
Six months later, Hitchner was taking an unofficial visit to the Malibu, California, campus. Now, he’s ranked No. 37 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and fresh off a summer in which he reached the semifinals of the U.S. Amateur.
Over the years, it’s been uncommon for coaches to find such All-American talent at camps.
“They’ve mostly been just about making money,” Georgia Tech head coach Bruce Heppler said. “I don’t think we ever signed anyone out of our camp, but a couple kids went other places, not many, but a lot of those [camps] were just for parents who wanted to drop their kids off and be away from them for a week.”
But changes to the recruiting calendar, implemented in 2019, have seemingly shifted the idea of camps being a babysitting money-grab – and not geared toward high-level junior golfers – to a beneficial step in any junior player’s path to college golf.
That’s why Joshua Jacobs decided to get into the camp business last year. The Los Angeles entrepreneur had already achieved large success as founder and CEO of TGA Premier Golf, an after-school program designed to introduce kids to golf and other sports, and he saw an opportunity to help reinvigorate the camp scene, which had soured due to lack of necessity for top players and a few grifters.
“Camps are 20-30% of the pathway to playing college sport in every other sport except golf, and so the goal was to create environments where coaches get to engage and bestow knowledge, and juniors and parents basically get to experience college golf,” Jacobs said. “These camps provide value for players, parents and coaches. These camps give coaches the opportunity to educate players and their families … and it helps kids and parents find their fit in the college golf world.”
College Golf Experience launched in June 2021 with its first camp at Classic Club in Palm Desert, California, with 42 juniors and seven coaches, including Pepperdine assistant Blaine Woodruff, who was fresh off helping the Waves to the NCAA title. Since then, CGX has held more than 20 camps while earning the endorsement of the Golf Coaches Association of America.
These camps are open to players of all abilities and ages 10-18, though Jacobs notes that 90% of CGX’s camper base are tournament golfers aged 13-17. At these camps, juniors engage with, receive instruction from and are evaluated by college coaches while also learning about college golf and the recruiting process via educational seminars.
There are three types of camps:
• Institutional camps: Focused on a single school, for juniors who know they want to play for that specific program, smaller in size.
• Preview camps: Take place in partnership with junior tours, held at tournament course, provide juniors with chance to engage with coaches but also learn the golf course through the lens of a college coach.
• Geographic showcase camps: Held regionally with coaches from several programs, for juniors who know they want to play in a particular part of the country or for the schools represented.
Upcoming on the CGX docket are a variety of camps, including a Southern California showcase camp Nov. 12-13 in Murrieta, California and Junior Tour of Northern California preview camp Nov. 19-20 in Somis, California. But most notable is the Top 100 Boys and Girls Showcase camp set for Dec. 17-18 in Phoenix.
This elite camp is open to everyone, but already has garnered sign-ups from dozens of highly ranked juniors from the Classes of 2025 and 2026.
And the coaching lineup is impressive: Joining Beard on the men’s side are Oklahoma’s Ryan Hybl, Georgia Tech’s Bruce Heppler, Florida’s J.C. Deacon, Texas Tech’s Greg Sands, Notre Dame’s John Handrigan, Illinois’ Mike Small, Washington’s Alan Murray, Oklahoma State’s Alan Bratton and Tennessee’s Brennan Webb. Stanford assistant Cole Buck and Oregon assistant Jeff Quinney. The women’s head coaches are Texas A&M’s Gerrod Chadwell, Florida State’s Amy Bond, UCLA’s Carrie Forsyth and Virginia’s Ria Scott, and the assistants are Stanford’s Brooke Riley, Wake Forest’s Ryan Potter, Florida’s Beth Wu, USC’s Tiffany Joh, Arizona’s Justin Bubser, Oklahoma State’s Maddi Swaney and Princeton’s Erynne Lee.
One coach said of this camp: “It will have the talent of a U.S. Junior Amateur, but in a camp setting.” Jacobs called it “a transformational event for these players and coaches.”
“In the past, these juniors and their parents have never had an opportunity to learn from and engage with so many top coaches and programs in one place,” Jacobs said. “And in the past, highly ranked junior golfers don’t think that there’s a need to go to a camp because they believe that it’s all about tournament scores, and that’s simply not the case anymore. What we’ve learned from hosting seminars with 150-plus college coaches, every golfer who these coaches are looking at has a great swing, they’re sharp, tournament ready, tournament tested, but coaches are looking for the intangibles – what you do when you hit a bad shot, how you treat your parents, what tournaments are you selecting to play.
“The way to set yourself apart if you’re a junior player is to go to a camp and get in front of these coaches and engage with them.”
The same could be said for coaches. Since 2019, NCAA Division I and II college golf coaches have been prohibited from having contact with recruits – via text, email, direct message, etc. – and making verbal offers until June 15 after a player’s sophomore year of high school. (Unofficial visits can then begin Aug. 1 for high-school juniors and older.) The only exception is coaches can interact with recruits at camps.
Many schools run their own institutional camps, including most of the elite programs. While Georgia Tech isn’t one of those institutions anymore, Heppler does consider today’s camps to be yesterday’s unofficial visits, though coaches have to be careful; NCAA rules state that “recruiting conversations” between a coach and player cannot take place.
“I’ve seen some of the materials from other schools’ camps and we’ve recruited kids who have already been to other places,” Heppler said, “and to be able to get those kids in before June 15, it certainly gives those schools a leg up and a head start for sure. … [This CGX camp] is the head start that everyone else has been having on their campuses.”
Heppler takes some issue with the new recruiting rules, which were designed in part to prevent players from committing too early – the “drive-by eighth-grader,” as Heppler calls it. He says while that problem has been solved, a new one has been created.
“Now, it’s like Armageddon on June 15,” Heppler said. “Everybody lines up, and if you went down the list, I’d bet you that 75-80% of the guys who have made a name for themselves before June 15 are already committed and it’s 23 months before they’re going to school, so we didn’t slow anything down. We just stopped the drip, drip, drip. So, now, June 15 comes, and players are going to go play six or seven events, and the pressure mounts because this kid’s going somewhere, and I need to know, and now they’re trying to make decisions without making visits or being forced to not take as many as they would like.
“I don’t know that we’ve accomplished anything in the area of helping young people gain all the information that they need to gain to make an important decision.”
Hence why Heppler sees added value in camps: “Anytime you can talk to somebody in person, you’re gaining information. And as a coach, you might get a little more of an idea of who you want to recruit when the time comes.”
Added Beard: “You still can’t talk recruiting, but you get to know the player and they get to know you.”
While there are still open spots for the Top 100 showcase camps ($1,495 plus lodging), the slots are filling – and with elite talent, who will have the opportunity to get face-to-face time with top coaches, ask them questions, take part in simulated college practice and tournament rounds, and more.
“The amount of exposure and relationships coaches get to create with young student athletes is second to none,” UCSB head coach Chris Massoletti said. “Campers get to learn inside knowledge about all things college golf, including recruiting and tournament preparation they can soak up. Not only are the players getting direct one-on-one interaction with coaches, but parents are encouraged to engage with the coaches as well. This is a fantastic opportunity to clear up recruiting myths and misinformation directly from the people who are involved, the coaches.”
Jacobs says he’s had a few engagements with parents after his camps where they’ve been in tears.
“They had a junior golfer who loved the game, who was showing aptitude and starting to do well in tournaments,” Jacobs said, “and they just didn’t know where to start when it came to their pathway to college golf.”
Now, thanks in part to camps like CGX, they do.