When Karl Vilips was 8 years old, a reporter sat down with the young Australian golf phenom and asked if, one day, he wished to be famous.
“I already am,” he said, nonchalantly.
Even back then, it was difficult to argue.
Vilips has been the true definition of a prodigy from the beginning – the kind often proclaimed as the “next Tiger Woods.” As a 6-year-old, he turned heads when he drove the ball more than 150 yards. By age 7, he had traveled to America and won a U.S. Kids World Championship by three shots. He claimed victory in that event once more and then won the Callaway Junior Worlds twice. By the time he was 12, Vilips already had accepted a scholarship to attend a golf academy in the United States.
Now at 15 “Koala” Karl’s mechanics are an amalgamation of Rory McIlroy’s confident hip turn and Jason Day’s meticulous short game. And he has established a résumé to back up those comparisons: Vilips plays to a gaudy plus-4.3 handicap, was the youngest to qualify for last year’s U.S. Amateur, is ranked first nationally among players set to graduate high school in 2020 and, just two months ago, broke Woods’ record to become the youngest winner of the world-class Junior Orange Bowl tournament.
He is a freshman at Saddlebrook Preparatory School just north of Tampa in Wesley Chapel. In due time, Vilips will announce where he will attend college – schools in California or Arizona are current front-runners – where a golf scholarship seems essentially guaranteed.
He’s a can’t-miss prospect, but we have seen kids like him vanish into thin air. However, Vilips is different. His story is equal parts painful and mesmerizing.
The soft-spoken teenager with black hair and a fleeting Australian accent was raised with no mother or siblings. His father, Paul, had to fend for himself as a single parent, and when Karl was young, Paul lost just about everything he had. They had no home.
Despite the adverse circumstances, it was obvious Karl had a special gift for the game of golf, so Paul worked resolutely to give his son a fighting chance. On the backing of a local fundraiser, 6-year-old Karl went to America with a half set of beat-up clubs and finished seventh in the U.S. Kids World Championship.
“I remember the flight just being terrible,” Karl said. “Everything was so surreal. I still remember the first time tasting the food and hearing the accents.”
Then, needing a real set of clubs for future events, Karl and his father walked into a local golf shop and figured out that they would need to collect 3,000 golf balls to earn $1,000 toward a set of irons.
So Karl went out with a 25-foot ball retriever on one of the more difficult courses in Australia, where tall rough and deadly snakes keep golfers from ball-searching. He picked up about 150 balls a day, and two weeks later he had enough to sell for a real set of irons.
“At the time, I didn’t really understand the financial hardships and what was really going on,” Karl said. “I was just doing it for fun.”
Karl legally utilized the help of others to cover tournament expenses, but the rules do not allow others to profit from that help. It meant that he grew up living a double life – a dominant golf talent who actually was homeless. At one point, he and his father were living off of $280 a week and moved into Salvation Army quarters.
“If you’ve ever seen the movie The Pursuit of Happyness with Will Smith, it was basically like that,” Paul said. “I did whatever I could to make things comfortable for Karl.”
The circumstances were admittedly less than ideal – fortunately for Paul and Karl they since have improved – but Karl continued to progress as a golfer and has been supplied with equipment from companies since age 9.
Now living in Florida with his dad back in Australia, Karl is undoubtedly a new-age junior golfer. His YouTube channel – which as of this writing had more than 23,000 subscribers – attracts enough views to warrant ads being played before the content. You can watch just about every swing from any of Karl’s tournaments with a commentator – sometimes Paul, sometimes a friend willing to help out – providing context.
But don’t mistake any of this for a lack of humility, be it from Karl or his father. There is a common sentiment they both openly say they to adhere to.
“We don’t care if he becomes the next Tiger Woods,” Paul said. “We just want him to be Karl Vilips.”