In the last century, Texas has produced some of golf’s most iconic figures. From Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson to Babe Zaharias and Kathy Whitworth, Texans have helped forge the game’s history.
Likewise, there has always been a younger group ready to continue the legacy. Major champions from Texas such as Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, and Justin Leonard passed the torch to Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker, just as Stacy Lewis and Brittany Lang succeeded Sandra Haynie and Carol Mann.
Now a new crop angles for the spotlight. More than ever, junior golf in Texas offers a showcase for tomorrow’s stars. The state’s top tours joined forces in 2011 and created the Texas Junior Golf Alliance to help parents navigate the often murky waters of highly competitive adolescent athletics.
The Legends Junior Tour (LJT), home of the state’s most competitive tournaments, partnered with the Northern and Southern Texas PGA Junior Tours and Houston Golf Association to establish a clear path for juniors to reach their goals while lowering travel expenses for parents. The Alliance allows youths to play in local tournaments and earn points toward entry into bigger statewide events. The next level is the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA), a nationwide tour for the country’s best players.
“There is a staggering amount of accomplished juniors in Texas,” said Kellen Kubasak, director of operations for the LJT. “We see the state’s elite players each year, and part of our job is to prepare them for national events.”
Out of this deep talent pool, here are five of the state’s top prodigies.
Noah Goodwin, Class of 2018
Exhibit A in the case for Texas’s juniors’ golf supremacy resides in Corinth. Noah Goodwin, 16, is the consensus No. 1 junior in the country. After six top-five finishes in seven national junior events last year, including runner-up at the U.S. Junior Amateur, he checked off another goal in November when he picked up the 2016 AJGA Player of the Year award.
Goodwin has been setting goals his whole life. In 2005, his dad took him to a Taekwondo class. “I’m going to be a black belt,” he said after the first session. Two years later, Goodwin earned a first degree black belt.
He was 7 years old.
“Goals keep you accountable,” said Goodwin, one of 12 U.S. juniors selected for the 2016 Junior Ryder Cup team. “You put something on paper you can strive for every single day. When you’re practicing and want to go home, you can look at it and put in a little more time to reach that goal.”
A self-proclaimed grinder, Goodwin loves marathon practice sessions. Some last more than 12 hours. The pursuit of unattainable perfection drives him.
“I love golf because it’s something you can always work at,” Goodwin said. “You can never be perfect, but you can always be better.”
Golf fans likely remember Cole Hammer’s name from the 2015 U.S. Open. He was 15 at the time, the third youngest to play in professional golf’s most grueling examination.
Born and raised in Houston, Hammer shot 64-68 in the qualifier and beat several PGA Tour pros. He outplayed even more, including 14-time major champion Tiger Woods, with a first round 77 at the 115th U.S. Open. Hammer ultimately missed the cut at the diabolical Chambers Bay.
“It gave me the motivation to work as hard as I can because I loved being there,” said Hammer, 17, who has made a verbal commitment to the University of Texas. “That’s where I want to be when I’m done with college.”
Ranked third nationally in his class, Hammer is a two-time AJGA All-American with 14 junior victories since 2012. Half of those came on the Legends Junior Tour.
“Doing well in Legends events made me much more confident,” Hammer said. “You have deep, deep fields in Texas. We love competing against each other, and it made transitioning to the national level easier.”
In September, Hammer had elbow surgery to remove bone spurs. He started hitting full shots again four months later.
“This experience has made me realize how much I love golf,” he said. “I can’t wait to play again.”
The daughter of a naval officer, Kaitlyn Papp, 18, is accustomed to moving, sometimes from as far away as Okinawa, Japan, to coastal North Carolina and the Florida Panhandle. Change has been the norm for Austin’s Papp, a four-time AJGA All-American who won the 2016 U.S. Women’s Four-Ball Championship with Hailee Cooper.
At a young age, Papp learned to make new friends and embrace diverse cultures. Her hard work and skill made her one of the best young golfers in the country. Papp’s childhood—and the travel involved—prepared her for the rigors of her dream job.
“I want to play on the LPGA Tour and win major championships,” said Papp, a senior at Austin’s Lake Travis High School, which won consecutive UIL Class 6A State Championships in 2015-16.
Military family life also instilled discipline and maturity in Papp. Recruited by more than 25 colleges, she toured four schools before she fell in love with the University of Texas staff and facilities. Papp committed to the Longhorns the day after her visit.
Then she called the other coaches.“It was difficult, but it was the right thing to do,” Papp said. “Honesty is the best policy, and I didn’t want to just send an email. Those coaches spent time recruiting me. I owed them the respect of giving them the news personally.”
In an era of specialization, Travis Vick is a throwback. While many gifted athletes his age have dedicated themselves to a single sport, 16-year-old Vick diversifies. One of the best young golfers in the country, Vick also plays quarterback, linebacker, pitcher, and third baseman for Houston’s Second Baptist High School.
“Football and baseball foster my competitive spirit,” said Vick, the top-ranked golfer in the country for the Class of 2019.
Last July at the biggest junior tournament in the world, Vick shot a course-record 64 in the first round of the U.S. Junior Amateur and won medalist honors the next day. He understands golf provides his best opportunity for a professional career and takes lessons from Hal Sutton, a 14-time PGA Tour winner.
“His potential in golf is unlimited,” Sutton said. “He’s got a quiet soul, and that helps to be a better golfer. If he chooses to focus on golf, then he’ll be the ruler of his destiny.”
The 2016 Southern Texas PGA Junior Golfer of the Year, Vick has a short list of colleges he intends to visit. He plans to commit to one before his senior year.
Winning a USGA National Championship is the pinnacle achievement for most amateurs. Montgomery’s Hailee Cooper, however, is an outlier. A four-time AJGA All-American, Cooper said her biggest accomplishment was not the 2016 U.S. Women’s Four-Ball Championship she won with Kaitlyn Papp. Rather, Cooper is most proud of being selected to play for the 2016 U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team.
“Nothing compares to playing on a team and representing your country,” said Cooper, a two-time LJT Player of the Year with 14 junior victories since 2014.
After Cooper and Papp won the coveted USGA title in May 2016, they teamed with Noah Goodwin in September to lead the U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team to victory against Europe.
Cooper’s passion to outwork her peers is matched only by her love for the game. Already an accomplished player at age 12, Cooper in her first junior high tournament was grouped with three inexperienced girls. They didn’t know the rules or how to play tournament golf.
“Hailee led those girls around and helped them at every turn,” said Conroe Country Club’s Ron Herridge, Cooper’s longtime instructor. “She puts the game ahead of herself. I’ve never been more proud of her than in that moment. And she shot 3-under 33.”
Five More to Watch:
- Walker Lee, Houston (Class of 2017): The sweet-swinging lefthander is a 2016 AJGA All-American and two-time Legends Junior Tour winner who tied the amateur course record at Champions Golf Club with a 10-under 62 on the legendary Cypress Creek Course. A Texas A&M commit, Lee also won the 2015 Texas Father-Son Championship with his dad, Randy Lee.
- Mason Nome, Houston (Class of 2019): With a homemade swing and nary a golf lesson in his life, Nome has nine top-10 AJGA finishes since 2014, including a fourth-place finish at the 2016 Junior Players Championship. He won a Callaway Junior World Championship when he was 12 and verbally committed to Texas a year later.
- Grace Ni, Cypress (Class of 2019): A three-time winner in 2016, Ni loves the freedom and independence golf provides. “You can hit any shot you want as long as you get to your goal, which is the bottom of the cup,” she said. An eight-time winner since 2013, Ni draws motivation to succeed in golf from her little sister Maggie Ni, a world-ranked chess player.
- Hailey Jones, Dallas (Class of 2019): A two-time AJGA All-American, Jones is also one of the most dominant players in LJT history. She’s a two-time Player of Year and won five times in 2016 on the Texas Elite Junior Golf Tour. In July 2016, Jones successfully defended her State Junior Championship.
- Sadie Englemann, Austin (Class of 2019): The two-time Jackie Burke Cup participant tied for medalist honors against the best in the world at the 2016 U.S. Girls Junior Amateur. When she was 12, Englemann became the first female to tie the competitive course record at Austin Country Club with a 9-under par 63.
-Words by Mark Button, photographs courtesy of the Texas Golf Association