They’re easy to spot in their school colors, with matching hats and, in some cases, even belts that reveal their collegiate affiliation. There’s LSU head coach Chuck Winstead, decked out in a deep purple and gold-striped shirt, tracking a player who has verbally committed to the Tigers.
A few holes away stands a man in Buckeye scarlet-and-gray that quickly identifies him as Ohio State’s Donnie Darr. Conrad Ray of Stanford proudly wears a white shirt with the cardinal red S on the breast pocket.
College coaches have been everywhere at this U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, walking the fairways of The Golf Club of New England to follow recruits or perhaps discover a diamond in the rough that isn’t yet on anyone’s radar.
"They all come to the U.S. Junior Amateur because it’s one of the most important [championships] in the world," said Roberto Galletti, whose son, Nicolo, reached the quarterfinals before being eliminated on Friday by Jim Liu. It’s also good for the junior rankings, which college coaches look at all the time. But it’s important they see these players in person, and they can do that again and again all week.
For Nicolo (who will attend Arizona State), the exposure he received here really made a difference.
More than 100 coaches journeyed to New Hampshire this week. They traveled from schools big and small, from Wake Forest, Texas and Arizona State to Liberty University, Clarion University in Pennsylvania and Keenesaw State in Georgia. Coaches from colleges in more than 30 states, including Hawaii, were in attendance, and every major conference was represented.
The U.S. Junior Amateur is an event coaches dare not miss.
"There’s a plethora of talent, not only from the United States but elsewhere, which you can see from looking at the leaderboard and seeing where these players are from," said Mark Leroux, head coach at Missouri. "This is a championship that as a coach you have to be at to look for talent."
For many of the young guns here competing, the U.S. Junior Amateur provides a unique opportunity to showcase their skills and, perhaps, catch the eye of a coach who was previously unaware of their talent.
"There are always a ton of overlooked players that get here, make match play and from that point on make a name for themselves and get some recognition," said Jay Calvo, assistant coach at Liberty. "It’s great exposure for a lot of kids who don’t play beyond their home state or in national competition."
Maverick McNealy was one such example this week. He had never competed outside California before coming to the Junior Am, and numerous coaches were inquiring about the gutsy kid who reached the quarterfinals before losing in 20 holes to Matthew Scobie of Canada.
Unfortunately for them, he has verbally committed to attend Stanford. "All these coaches were going up to [Stanford coach] Conrad Ray and asking, ‘Where did you find this kid?’" said Scott McNealy, Maverick’s father.
"You’ll see a few kids out there with no ranking, so they haven’t played in a lot of tournaments that some of the more well-known players have," Leroux says. "So it gives coaches the chance to find a kid who is perhaps blossoming late and having a great summer."
While discovering a hidden talent is always a goal, coaches are also following players they have been recruiting, hoping to learn more about their ability, composure and how they handle the pressure of match play on the national stage.
"We look at their fundamentals and how competitive they are on the golf course," Calvo said. "We like to see how they carry themselves. If they’re down in a match, do they grind it out until the very end, trying to push for extra holes?"
Leroux even watches how players behave, even to the point of how they interact with their parents. Although talent is the top priority, a player’s character is critically important. The fact that the U.S. Junior Amateur is match play after the opening two rounds provides coaches with insight not available at other competitions. It also gives players the chance to display their poise, toughness and mettle.
"Match play brings out something different," Leroux says. "It’s not the total at the end of the day that counts; it’s hole by hole. You can see how kids rise to the occasion, kids that can kind of grab somebody by the throat when they get them down, and those that might get timid and fold under the pressure. Match play certainly gives us as coaches another perspective on the young man."
Throughout the week, and especially on Monday and Tuesday when the entire field is competing, college coaches are practically shoulder-to-shoulder walking the fairways, which makes for an interesting dynamic. None want to give away trade secrets about a potential recruit, or even that they’re interested in a particular player. So coaches attempt to remain discreet, often watching from afar, hoping not to be noticed.
"Everybody knows the players at the top of the rankings, but on some of the lesser known, if you have some insight that other coaches don’t, you’re not going to give that up," Leroux says. "There is certainly a cat-and-mouse game that goes on. It’s kind of a catch-22; you want the player you’re watching to know you’re there, but you don’t want all the other coaches thinking, ‘Hey, what’s he doing over there?’"
But in the end, it’s the players who benefit from the exposure that could ultimately lead to a college scholarship and a life-changing experience.
Rob Duca is a New England-based freelance writer who is contributing to usga.org. this week.