Robert Shaw had done the easy part. He had played No. 18 at the Polo Golf and Country Club perfectly. His drive split the fairway. His 9-iron approach shot left the ball on the right side of the green parallel with the hole.
After parking his golf cart next to the green, Shaw grabbed his putter, walked up to his ball and crouched behind it to analyze the 15 feet left to reach the hole. Slight break right to left. Just a touch uphill. He walked around, faced the ball and got into his putting stance with his feet shoulder-width apart and head staring down. Since the first time Shaw hit a golf ball at age 2, he’s found he struggles the most as the game shrinks down to its smallest facets.
"Normally, I’m a really good ball-striker," Shaw says. "Or I consider myself to be. My putting can be my downfall sometimes."
Shaw brought his putter back slowly and then struck the ball. His knees buckled as the ball missed less than an inch right of the cup and rolled past, a reminder of why Shaw spent 10 of his 11 summer weeks at tournaments around the Southeast since he helped lead the West Forsyth boys golf team to its first Georgia High School Association state championship appearance in school history this past May.
"Some days it’ll be good, some days it’ll be really good," Shaw says. "I want it to be really good all the time."
That day with the Wolverines down in Evans was a good one. Shaw shot a team-best 75 to finish 11th overall in Class AAAAAA. Just a week later, he was back on the course, this time for the Orchard Hills Junior Classic in Newnan, Georgia, a Southeastern Junior Golf Tour event. It was another good day; he shot a 68 and 71 and finished fourth.
"It’s been coming along, and it’s been more consistent lately," Shaw says.
But there were days over the summer where Shaw’s putting wasn’t good enough – the 42nd finish at the Will Claxton Junior in Auburn, Ala., the 134th finish at the Future Masters in Dothan, Ala.
"This summer’s been OK," Shaw’s father, Dave, said as he sat in a golf cart watching Robert. "It hasn’t been the greatest summer, but it’s been OK."
For the aspiring high school golfer, Shaw’s summer is typical. So are the private lessons he gets from Rob Stocke, the director of instruction at The Golf Club of Georgia. Or his weekly schedule, which goes something like this:
Monday: Shaw may practice chipping and putting, but more often he takes the day off as Polo, the club where his father is a member, is closed.
Tuesdays and Thursdays: Hit on the driving range and play a round of nine holes.
Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays: Full 18- or even 36-hole rounds.
Golf is among the lesser visible college sports, but it may be among the most competitive for scholarships. Its non-revenue status puts unique constraints on a college golf coach’s recruiting budget and the number of scholarships available to the 223,638 high school golfers in the country, according to most recent High School Athletics Participation Survey by The National Federation of State High School Associations. A Division I men’s golf coach has 4.5 scholarships to offer. Meanwhile, Georgia Tech had nine golfers on its men’s team. Georgia had 12.
College coaches find those golfers during the summer when the high school season is over, and so Shaw has canvased the Southeast, from Brunswick, on Georgia’s coast, to Oak Ridge, Tenn., where he’ll play his last tournament this week before school starts.
"Summer is the time to make your move," Shaw says.
Shaw does it all while maintaining his academic integrity. The son of a teacher at Vickery Creek Elementary, school work has always come first regardless of Shaw’s golfing regimen. He was accepted into the Distance Learning program this school year. He’ll come to school an hour early every day to take a Georgia Tech calculus class.
Last year, Shaw’s parents had him take an online college psychology course to help him learn time management. By the time he graduates, Shaw could have as many as 13 college credits.
"We’re trying to get him to feel like it’s more college and you don’t have people beating on you all the time saying, ‘You have to do this,’" Dave says.
The trade-off comes with Shaw’s social life.
"My friends will ask me, ‘Hey, you want to hang out today?’" Shaw said. "I’ll say, ‘No, I can’t. I have practice today.’"
But the golf course makes up for the sacrifice. After his approach shot on 18, Shaw walked over to his dad watching from a few yards behind him, whispered something that made both chuckle and got back into his golf cart.
He drove over a short bridge heading toward a putt he would miss, a putt he would later say looked like a sure make. They are the putts he needs to make more often for the college coaches who are starting to show interest.
"We like to have fun out here," Shaw said while driving. "Not every father and son get to play golf together."