14-year-old Rij Patel's career shows lots of loft

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Rij Patel is every golf coach's nightmare. His swing is as unconventional as they come. Rij describes it as "weird" and "bad," and it's enough to make nearby golfers do a double take. But their amusement turns to awe as his contorted clubface finally straightens itself out at the last possible moment before impact.

Rij is also every coach's dream. As metal meets ball, one can't help but wonder how such power comes from the Rij's frame — small, even for a 14-year-old. He's mature beyond his years, is intelligent and spends much of his time practicing at Hunt Valley Golf Club, where he and his parents belong. Rij also happens to be the No. 1 golfer in the 14-and-under division of the International Junior Golf Tour, a prestigious circuit that has produced such professional standouts as Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan and Paula Creamer.

But as junior golf, and youth sports in general, becomes more extravagant, Rij and his family do it the old-fashioned way.

"What makes Rij interesting and kind of special is his personality, his disposition," said John Albert, director of golf at Hunt Valley. "He's very aware of the etiquette and rules of the game, and the traditions of the game. He's very respectful of everybody around him and the golf course."

So while the posses surrounding top junior golfers grow to include trainers, dietitians and sport psychologists, the Patel "team," as Rij's father, Mayur, calls it, remains stable. Rij, an incoming freshman at McDonogh, along with his dad and his mom, Ulupi, simply concentrate on enjoying the sport they all love in its purest form — if the end goal, a college scholarship, comes with it, then all the better.

Beginning Tuesday in San Diego, Rij will compete in the Callaway Junior World Championships. A solid four rounds of golf against the strongest field Rij has faced would make that goal a little closer to reality.

Northern exposure

When a 1-year-old Rij sat gripping a plastic putter in his walker at the family's Cockeysville home, his parents never could've imagined they had a prodigious talent on their hands.

In fact, even when Rij decided before the just-concluded season that he wanted to pursue tournaments on the IJGT level, the top ranking seemed like a pipe dream. But he made the most of the five tournaments he played in, climbing steadily with each event. In mid-May, playing in a tournament at Hershey (Pa.) Country Club, Rij took a two-stroke lead into the final hole. Despite a rare bogey on the treacherous 18th, Rij won the tournament and, with it, the top slot on the tour's worldwide leader board.

It was a victory, not just for the Patel family, which preaches respect over ranking points and etiquette over entourages, but also for golfers in the tour's Northeast division. Often, the Southeast region garners the most attention with 12 months of outdoor golf available.

"In the past few winters, not this winter, but in the winters before, this course would be closed," said Rij, gesturing down at the heavily wooded Hunt Valley from a veranda. "But this winter was kind of mild, so it wasn't really a disadvantage this winter."

Hank Haney, Tiger Woods' former coach, operates an academy on Hilton Head Island, S.C.; it has become the IJGT's biggest feeder.

"They have a lot of international kids that board there," Mayur said. "They stay there and [golf] is all they do. They do some curricular stuff in the daytime, but at 2 p.m., they go and play golf. They all have their coaches."

Rij has never been to Hilton Head Island and hasn't spent his youth rushing into an intense golf regimen like the kids at the academy.

But that's not to say Rij isn't taking the necessary steps to ensure he reaches his goal of playing college golf.

"Rij seems to understand what it takes to play at a level that he wants to play at," Albert said. "His parents have helped him to understand that practice is a part of it. He seems to really enjoy practicing."

During the summer, Rij spends about five days a week navigating Hunt Valley's three nine-hole courses. But in his limited spare time, Rij does normal teenager stuff. He and his friends will play the front nine, dive into the pool at the club, grab a bite, then finish the back nine. He plays tennis, squash and soccer, though he plans on giving up tennis because it coincides with the school golf season.

Rij also plays golf video games — "I'm much better on the video games. I shoot way under par." In fact, when Rij played at TPC Sawgrass, the parents marveled at how well their kids knew the course. How did they know every dogleg and hazard? From their Xbox 360s, of course.

"I could see these kids — they know everything about every hole," Mayur said. "They just can't wait to get to [holes] 16, 17, 18 because that's what the whole tournament's about. You get that sense of excitement when you get there."

Moving to the next tee

Just as a fish outgrows its tank, Rij might be outgrowing Hunt Valley.

On the practice range, Rij can't unleash a full swing with a driver without risking the ball sailing over the net that separates the range from the course.

The greens are no longer a match for Rij's putting. At the May tournament in Hershey, he spent the first round trying to adjust from Hunt Valley's "mundane" greens, as Mayur puts it, to ones that are more difficult to read.

Frustrated after two-putting and three-putting his way to a disappointing round, Rij told his parents to go shopping. So they did — for three hours. When they came back, Rij was still there, putter in hand. But instead of butchering the putts as he did earlier in the day, he was sinking them.

"I think I've got it figured out," Rij said.

The next day, Rij cut nine strokes off his score and won the tournament.

As Rij matures, the courses will become tougher, and he needs a home club that will allow him to grow.

"[Hunt Valley] was good until now," Mayur said. "But now we're seriously looking at a facility that has more practice area."

Albert seemed to think that Hunt Valley provides a "fair challenge" to a golfer of any ability.

"I'd say on a [difficulty] scale of one to 10, it's probably an eight," Albert said.

Rij disagrees — respectfully, of course.

"This is actually one of the easier [courses]," Rij said. "Out of 10, I would give this course a three or four."

Time to age up?

In addition to where he will play, the Patel "team" has another important decision to make this summer — who he will play.

That's because Rij barely makes the cutoff date to play in the under-14 division for another season. For a typical teenager, the lure of hoisting trophies and securing the top ranking would be too much to pass up, making the decision easy. But Rij is hardly a typical teen.

After Rij played in the tour's Tournament of Champions at season's end in late May, he and his family were flying home from Orlando, Fla., winner's trophy stowed in the overhead bin.

Mayur leaned over and asked Rij whether he had given any more thought to next year — would he want to age up this fall or continue his reign in the 14s?

Golf is such a mental sport, and the psychological benefits to playing well and, occasionally, winning, are vast. But that's not how Rij sees it.

"I've already accomplished everything I can accomplish in this level," Rij told his dad. "If I don't win again, it'd be a letdown. I may as well just go up because I've got nothing to lose."

Quite the calculated reasoning for a 14-year-old.

"He has a lot of maturity," Mayur said. "He understands the sport and where he stands. If we have a decision that's a split decision, we talk it out, and his rationale is usually sound. It makes sense. It's an open partnership."

Added Rij: "I've already accepted the fact that the first year [playing up] is not going to be extremely easy for me. I'm going to be playing with older kids and longer yardage."

Even if he decides to age up and play with the big boys, Rij insists on maintaining the same work ethic that vaulted him to the top of the ranking system in the first place, making it look like, well, child's play.

As Rij warms up before a practice round on the driving range, a club member approaches.

"You're Rij Patel?" the man inquires, his voice inflecting with a blend of delight and wonder.

"It's nice to meet you," Rij replies humbly, extending his hand to the admiring passerby.

After a few more practice shots, he collects his bag and heads toward the first tee.

mslovin@baltsun.com

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