For six months of the year, in between its time as a frozen tundra, Wild Pines is an undistinguished nine-hole course tucked off a country road in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Down the gravel drive, marked only by a small white sign, and past the blue port-o-john, sits a dusty shack of a clubhouse with the words “Pay Here” carved into the wall for those who would like to play the 2,387-yard layout. Play once (please leave $10), twice ($18) or all day ($24).
The greens are small with longer fairway turf often patched together with shorter grass around the hole. Don’t expect perfect lies if you hit the hardscrabble fairways. Worse if you miss them.
This is where Hunter Eichhorn, one of the country’s most intriguing college golfers, learned to play the game alongside his grandfather, Steve. The two of them often squeezed in as many holes as they could before the summer sun went down.
Eichhorn’s home course is perfectly symbolic of his golf career. He’s never had a lesson or a swing instructor. Even as his talent developed and he won almost 70 local tournaments in the immediate Michigan-Wisconsin area, Eichhorn almost never competed in national events until he arrived at Marquette University in 2017. His family couldn’t afford it. So he learned to dominate around home.
Like the hardpan ground of Wild Pines, Eichhorn is tough and unapologetic.
“It’s made me more competitive in a way,” he said. “There are people who had a better upcoming in the golf world, and I guess you can say that’s put a chip on my shoulder. I like having that. I’m grateful for it.”
‘There’s Something Special About This Kid’
Marquette coach Steve Bailey thought he might have hit gold when he recruited Eichhorn.
He remembers their first encounter back in 2015 as Eichhorn played a Wisconsin PGA junior event. Bailey had heard about this kid from the middle of nowhere who could shoot in the 60s consistently while racking up trophies. The year after Bailey first saw him play, Eichhorn won or finished second in 21 of 27 tournaments on the Wisconsin PGA circuit.
His play sounds worthy of many Division I pursuers, but other than Marquette, Eichhorn received offers from only South Dakota State and Michigan State. For a small cold-weather school like Marquette, effective recruiting often means traversing the backroads of junior golf to find a hidden talent.
“He was just shooting enough of those low scores that it didn’t matter what level he was playing, it really caught your attention,” Bailey recalls. “You get a lot of kids in this day and age that want to go play in national events and if they finish in the top 25, they think it’s a good week.
“But there’s something special about this kid. You can say what you want about the level of competition he faced, but he just kept putting himself in position to win … it’s hard to put a value on that.”
In Eichhorn, Bailey had discovered a young man who represents a rarity in the current junior golf landscape. Even beyond being self-taught and lacking a national schedule, Eichhorn further declared himself a throwback by playing multiple sports throughout high school. He averaged more than 23 points a game as a senior on the Carney-Nadeau High School basketball team while also running cross country. All golfers are competitive by nature, but Eichhorn plays hard-nosed golf, in part, because of his experience in other sports. If he were to hit the fairway and see his ball in a divot, he’s the kind of player who sees it as an opportunity to hit a cool shot rather than a dreadful break.
Still, for all of the potential Bailey believed Eichhorn possessed before walking onto campus, college coaches always will say you never can tell for certain whether a player will sink or swim. Sometimes the perfect recruit can’t handle the environment and sometimes he or she blossoms.
It didn’t take long to find out what side Eichhorn would fall toward.
“The first day he stepped onto campus, he won our team qualifier by 16 shots,” Bailey said. “That set the bar pretty high.”
It wasn’t a mirage. Early in his first semester, Eichhorn boarded a plane for the first time in his life as the team jetted to Price’s Give ‘Em Five Invitational in El Paso, Texas.
“I was a little nervous at first during the takeoff,” Eichhorn said. “But then I focused on the fact we were going to Texas where it’s warm. That calmed me down.”
A couple of days after his first flight, he flew back with his first collegiate trophy.
“We weren’t surprised,” said teammate Oliver Farrell. “The first time I saw him play, you could see that he trusted himself. He doesn’t have a technically perfect golf swing, but he plays with a lot of confidence.”
No matter how he got the ball in the hole, the results were conclusive. Eichhorn ended his freshman season with a 71.88 stroke average while shooting par or better on 17 occasions. He won the Big East Championship by going wire to wire and was awarded player-of-the-year honors in the conference.
Now a sophomore, Eichhorn has lowered his stroke average to 71.27 with 10 of his 15 rounds at par or better. There’s room for greater heights, continuing what he has done his whole life.
“I can’t say that it was a surprise,” Eichhorn said. “It’s what I wanted to come to do.”
A Different Breed
The Hunter Eichhorn story is a fascinating slice of golf beauty. From being one of 17 kids in his high school graduating class to never looking at a launch monitor before reaching Marquette, he is a great example of how there is more than one avenue to become an effective college golfer.
He’s the son of a pipe-fitter and a schoolteacher, neither of whom have played golf. And that workmanlike attitude is evident in Eichhorn’s approach.
“The thing is, in the middle of a 36-hole day, you aren’t allowed to go to a TrackMan or to a swing instructor to check video,” Bailey said. “Someone like him is the complete opposite of the typical player because he can figure out a way to get it done in the heat of the battle. He just knows what his swing is capable of. It’s the simplest form of golf there is.”
His journey opens up larger questions: If Eichhorn has benefited from not specializing, should other kids do the same? Is specialization healthy or unhealthy? And how critical is specializing for those determined to play college golf?
There are no definitive answers. Of course there are many examples of successful golfers who have charted all different paths – specializing from a young age, picking up the game relatively late in life, balancing golf with other sports – but there is nonetheless a lot of interest, and a lot to learn, around these topics.
To attempt to maneuver through the many layers of these questions, we enlisted the help of Brendan Ryan, the owner of Golf Placement Services, a business dedicated to helping students gain the necessary skills to play college golf while also connecting them with schools that are a good fit.
Last year, Ryan collaborated with the American Junior Golf Association, the Golf Coaches Association of America and expert Dr. Bhrett McCabe to conduct research on one central topic: Is specializing in golf necessary to get recruited by colleges?
To do so, they asked seven questions on the topic to players at the AJGA Senior Showcase in Florida, an event that is specifically for senior high school students who have not committed to a college.
“What we discovered is that most of the kids have extraordinarily normal development patterns,” Ryan explained. “What that means is that in general the kids play multiple sports growing up and then specialize in golf around 12 or 13 years old and are committing to a school around 17 years old. And that’s a very healthy trend.”
Ryan noted that 72 percent of those surveyed felt it was necessary to specialize in the game in order to play Division I college golf. There’s a pretty clear message here: The kids believe that if you want to play at a high level, you are going to have a hard time doing so without dedicating your whole focus to it. That’s not to say there aren’t other Hunter Eichhorns out there, but with the pressure to secure scholarships intensifying, specialization is becoming the expectation.
That wasn’t the case a generation ago, and certainly not two. Jack Nicklaus played football, basketball and golf. Jim Furyk was the starting quarterback for his high school team. Hale Irwin played defensive back at the University of Colorado and earned six college letters in football and golf. But somewhere between then and now, coaches, players and parents decided that specialization in high school was the key to success.
Ryan wants to emphasize that specialization is not a dirty word but there are dangers of burnout and injury – a recent study by Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Emory University showed that athletes who specialize in one sport from a young age are roughly 70-93 percent more likely to be injured than those who play multiple sports – but that doesn’t make early specialization innately bad.
Ryan references the “Zeigarnik effect,” which is when a person with an unfinished task can’t stop thinking about what they have left unfinished. Those who specialize early in golf tend to skew heavily toward this behavior. These individuals have a high internal locus of control, which is the belief that he or she can influence events and outcomes rather than blaming outside forces.
In essence, certain individuals specialize in golf early because the sport is extremely inviting to their personalities.
“These people are naturally attracted to golf not because of their parents but because of their own interest,” Ryan said. “It’s not necessarily that bad. They are just involved in golf at a younger age. It’s pretty healthy for them to be committed at a young age and that needs to be said.
“It’s not like baseball where you have three skills to master with hitting, throwing and catching. There are so many skills to master, and that lends itself to early specialization.”
But like anything else, there is line to walk. Specializing isn’t inherently bad, but an 8-year-old kid playing 20-30 tournaments a year is probably out of balance, according to Ryan.
Reaching For Recruitment
If there is one thing to learn from Hunter Eichhorn, it’s that good play will get you noticed. You can shoot in the 60s consistently on the moon and someone is going to find you, even if it is late in the recruiting process.
One reason there are so few cases like Eichhorn’s is a dangerous imbalance between actual early commitments and the attention they receive. Juniors who commit to a college golf program early account for only a quarter of a percent of all commitments, but 72 percent of media stories about college golf commitments are focused on these individuals, Ryan says.
That tends to create a false sense of urgency. When other kids see how much attention early commits are getting, it often gives the impression they are falling behind. That encourages specialization and the drive to play more tournaments. But the data say that golfers who aren’t committed to college by their senior year are in no way worse off than those who commit early. According to Junior Golf Scoreboard, 35 percent of players sign scholarships in the late signing period and the AJGA Senior Showcase sees 60 percent of its participants making a college team the following fall.
Mark Oskarson, the chief operating officer of the AJGA, also makes the point that his organization has focused on reaching kids at all stages. There will be 123 AJGA events this year, and it’s not limited to elite invitation-only tournaments.
“We have our Preview Series, which is a chance for kids who have not had the opportunity to compete with the AJGA before, and it’s skewed towards the older graduation dates having those opportunities,” Oskarson says. “It’s the same for our Senior Showcase. These are events that are for kids who maybe came to the game later or played other sports and are looking to compete now.”
So specializing earlier may lead to an early commitment, but that isn’t a good reason to abandon other sports from a young age. There are many ways to get there.
“The biggest message we can send to kids is that everyone is on their own development pathway and there is no secret sauce to get there,” Ryan said. “There are players like Bryson DeChambeau who played a pretty local schedule as a junior and then there are players like Akshay Bhatia or Karl Vilips who show up everywhere trying to beat guys. There’s no right way, you just have to do what is best for you.”
Even with the increase in specialization, there will always be the occasional Hunter Eichhorn in college golf. Those players are worth celebrating and rooting for, but the journey to college golf has many potential routes.
A player like Eichhorn reminds us that one isn’t superior to the other.
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