Sean Foley has stood behind some of the best players in the world for the past 10 years as one of golf’s premier instructors.
So any hype that arrives ahead of the next supposed hotshot junior makes him want to yawn.
Foley first stood behind Cameron Champ six months ago after hearing bits about him for years. After watching Champ hit balls for 10 minutes, Foley cleared his schedule the next day to stay close to his newest pupil.
Talk about a good first impression.
“The kid at 17, hitting a 4-iron 250 yards straight up in the air and then hitting drives 340 yards in the air. I might never see that again,” Foley said. “I kind of know now what it felt like the first time Butch Harmon saw Tiger Woods.”
Champ, now 18, isn’t as polished as Woods at the same age – who is? – but the comparison rendered by Woods’ current coach provides professional insight into who we’re dealing with: The most talented and accomplished junior golfer with the greatest chance for significant pro success to ever hail from Sacramento.
Champ, the No. 1-ranked junior in California and ninth-ranked junior in the nation, could make his final local tournament appearance in this weekend’s Memorial Amateur at Ancil Hoffman. He starts at Texas A&M this summer, and between his college commitments and pro aspirations, this could be the last the local munis see of him.
Powerful, yes, but ...
John Wood is part of Team Champ. Wood is the caddie for Hunter Mahan (who also works with Foley) and a longtime acquaintance of Jeff Champ, Cameron’s father. After his counsel was sought, Wood needed less time than Foley to reach a similar conclusion.
“After I saw Cameron hit four or five shots, I knew there was something different there,” Wood said. “You don’t hear a ball get compressed like that, even on the PGA Tour.”
Champ’s average ball speed produced by a normal driver swing was 188 mph during a recent computerized fitting. Bubba Watson averages in the mid-180s.
But what impressed Wood more than Champ’s power was his desire to improve as a player; that’s why he helped bring the instructor and teenager together.
“It’s easy to be a one-trick pony – he’s shown no interest in that,” Wood said. “He knows there’s so much more to putting up a good golf score. Most juniors like to say, ‘I hit 9-iron into this hole or that hole.’ He’s more interested in talking about how he birdied the last hole when he needed to.”
At the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley – arguably the most prestigious junior event in the country – last month in Georgia, Champ closed with a 4-under-par 68 to finish second, one shot behind Scottie Scheffler, the nation’s top-ranked junior.
Competing at the highest level of junior golf, Champ finished in the top 10 at all four tournaments he played this year.
A long line
There have been a lot of great junior players in Sacramento through the years.
Spencer Levin and Natalie Gulbis may have been the most precocious. Kevin Sutherland and Nick Watney were good but really blossomed in college. Robert Meyer, Jack McCann and Dave Carr were prep phenoms. Bob E. Smith, Al Geiberger and Ray Arinno dominated the junior scene in their day. The future is still bright for college-age players Corey Periera, Austin Smotherman, Austin Roberts and Andrej Bevins.
“Cameron has a genetic gift,” Foley said.
And with that, the natural ability to eclipse the accomplishments of those before him.
He’s working with Foley to refine his shot selection, course management and mental approach. To hit an 8-iron 130 yards with an arm swing and the desired trajectory. To get at a back-right hole location by starting a fade at the left side of the green instead of the middle of the green to widen the area of acceptable “misses.” To keep golf and life harmonious.
“I have all the shots,” Champ said. “It’s learning how and when to use them.”
Foley isn’t touching Champ’s swing. He’s concerned about keeping Champ’s body stable and in balance considering the torque he generates. And creating a positive environment with advice from someone Champ can trust. But he isn’t touching that swing.
“Some players get better when they’re taught,” Foley said. “If he gets taught too much, he won’t be what he is.
“Whether Cameron becomes a great player, time will tell. The guy is very special right now. Ten years from now, who knows? The focus going forward is learning how to play the game.”
The road ahead
Champ is aware but unfazed, laid-back but attentive, confident but not cocky, soft-spoken but articulate. He knows he has golf skills that set him apart, but he’s had them for so long, they’re just part of the landscape.
He’s 6-feet but seems taller. He’s a narrow-waisted 180 pounds. He doesn’t work out but is clearly strong. He has blue eyes, curly hair and a skin complexion that reflects his half African American father and Caucasian mother.
As a competitor in a sport that’s made up almost exclusively of white athletes, he’s aware of the role his ethnicity might one day play, but he’s not focused on it.
He’s pursued an independent studies academic path that allowed him more time on the course during his high school years. He traveled alone to national events this year to prepare for life on the road. Among the reasons he chose to attend Texas A&M is he’ll learn to play on Bermuda greens and in the wind.
Not Tiger-like preparation, but not head in the sand, either.
Golfers intuitively know looking too far ahead rarely works, and Champ is no different. He generally says his goal is to be a top pro player. Not necessarily No. 1, but that a journeyman’s career wouldn’t satisfy him.
His more immediate mission is to make the 2015 Walker Cup team because that leads to tournament exemptions and expands possibilities. Still, whether the future holds a Jordan Spieth-like meteoric rise to pro stardom, four years in Texas and a college degree before turning pro or something else entirely, golf is unpredictable that way.
“How it goes, it goes,” he said. “It’s looking good if I keep doing what I’m doing.”
Call The Bee’s Steve Pajak, (916) 326-5526.