The Prodigies No. 25 Hafer Bandon

The Prodigies

A window into the big money and bigger dreams of elite junior golf

The arrival at Bandon Dunes usually marks the fulfillment of a dream, a visit to a bucket-list destination often planned out years in advance. For the teenage boys and girls walking into the iconic resort for the 2022 U.S. Junior Amateur, it was merely another business trip. These grim-faced competitors, shoulders level as a bridge, bodies seemingly nothing but right angles and clean lines, appeared to barely notice the staggering beauty around them. Such is the life of a golf prodigy: Even Bandon Dunes can be reduced to a stop on the way to the next place, the latest test of present and future greatness. 

Following these junior golfers, the best of the best, is like following no kids at all. They are determined. They’re media veterans. They look you in the eye when they talk. They shake your hand, firmly, and say “Yes, sir” and “No, thank you.” They are older than their years, a result of going in and out of the country’s great clubhouses, being around successful men and women on a weekly basis, traveling from tournament to tournament. Nothing about them seems like a kid until you spot a group of them at a table, the ball caps pushed back off their heads, the eyes lost deep in a cell phone, perhaps the glint of silver braces or a bout of acne. But then all those right angles walk to the first tee, transform back into the thing that belies their age and unleash a violent explosion of power in an efficient and well-timed strike on a golf ball. 

The majority of these kids won’t reach the pro game at all, let alone hoist a major championship trophy. For every Scottie Scheffler, the 2013 champ, there are many more stories like those of Jim Liu, who toppled Justin Thomas as a 15-year-old to win in 2010 and essentially had quit the game by his sophomore year at Stanford. 

Thus far, it appears that most feel the solution to this, to getting your prodigy to the promised land, is to double down on the arms race of the junior amateur circuit. Most may not make it, but at least they get to experience the professional life in a few obvious ways: At this level, corporate sponsors provide the clubs they use, the balls they hit, the slim-fit performance fabrics they wear, even some of their high-tech practice equipment. Beyond that, parents with the means will spare no expense to provide top-notch coaching, access to pristine courses and practice facilities, and whatever else is current game-improvement du jour. To walk the fairways at any high-profile junior tournament is to witness the hard financial reality of playing at this level. 

Despite playing in stunning locations like Bandon Dunes, high-level junior players like Luke Clanton (left) and Nick Dunlap (right) must stay focused on the tasks at hand.

The strain for even solidly middle-class families is immense. Every parent struggles with finding clothes that fit their sprouting children; imagine the cost of keeping them in new clubs as those arms and legs lengthen, as that swing arc gets wider. Teenage feet grow like crazy, and nice golf shoes can run well past $100 a pop. Now factor in tournament fees, travel expenses, hotel rooms, food and, yes, like the rest of us, a little glitter from the pro shop. There are sources of funding in junior golf foundations from state to state and at the American Junior Golf Association, and, to its credit, the USGA launched a U.S. National Development Program in 2023 with a goal to fund 1,000 competitive junior golfers by 2027—but nobody rides for free. 

Luke Clanton is a 5’11” specimen from Miami with the requisite right angles, in part because he is about as broad as a fence post. He also hits his hybrid farther than I’ve ever hit driver on a downhill hole with a helping wind. His muscles and tendons, like those of his fellow competitors, have taken on the elasticity of a slingshot, maximizing clubhead speed, finding the nirvanic mixture of perfect launch angles and optimal spin rates. 

“Luke is my gift,” his mother, Rhonda, tells me. He is their late-in-life son, the boy whose father took him to the golf course every day when he got home from work, determined, as he had been with his daughters, to make an athlete out of him. We walk as he advances through the tournament, and Rhonda is thankful, she insists, for the distraction of my questions, which keep her from getting too nervous about her son’s performance. But I watch her watching: the way she rises on her toes when he putts, the way she answers my questions without taking her eyes off her son for long. A not-yet-teenage boy named Wallace tags along with us, a local kid whose mother is also here. Host families have for decades been a part of junior golf, and the food, rooms and local knowledge they provide means they might be even more important now. The boy’s family is housing Christiaan Maas from South Africa, now a University of Texas sophomore. Wallace, a budding golfer himself, has come to feel this week as if Christiaan and Luke are his big brothers. In his excitement during Luke’s quarterfinal match, Wallace doesn’t register the intensity of the moment and walks up to Luke after a lost hole and begins chatting away. Luke lets the boy walk next to him, never giving away what his mother says is a burning intensity ever present on the golf course. In fact, she says, sometimes when he gets mad, he plays better. 

These are not halcyon days. These are days of conquering, of striving, of marching toward a destiny that to them seems predetermined even when we know with mathematical certainty this is not the case.

Luke dispatches his opponent on the 17th hole, and the small crowd watching makes its way to the clubhouse. The sun is on its devastatingly beautiful descent into the ocean, wind pressing against the coast and whooshing through our hair. As gently as I can, I tell Rhonda that my interest in Luke as a subject is not just about his golf prowess; it’s also due to their modest means compared to some of the others. “My knowledge and love for the game started with my dad,” Luke says in the USGA’s media guide for this event. “My parents are hardworking people, but couldn’t afford all the luxuries of golf. I practiced on public golf courses with a combination of purchased and borrowed clubs.” 

“It’s not always been easy,” Rhonda admits. “But I’ll say this: It was totally worth it. You’ve got kids, right?” I tell her I do. “Then you do it. You won’t regret it.” Any successful life needs serendipity. And for the Clantons, it might be that Rhonda is a flight attendant. Her ability to get free airline tickets has allowed Luke to travel all over the country—and her to chaperone him. She also credits support from the AJGA and the Florida State Golf Association that has helped Luke pursue his golf dream. 

Without these sources of funding, his mother’s job and his sponsors, it’s safe to say Luke wouldn’t have risen this high in the sport. Others, of course, aren’t that lucky. As we walk, I wonder how many potential stars golf has lost over the years just because a kid was born into lesser means. Luke says that when he was younger his father kept his junior clubs longer than he needed to, in part because new clubs were unaffordable. But he now sees that as a positive. “It taught me how to flight the ball,” he says. “If I had got a new set, I wouldn’t have learned that.” 

When asked about his professional goals, Luke says the first thing he wants to do is make enough money playing golf to take care of his parents, particularly his mother. “She travels with me to all these tournaments and then gets home and goes right to work for a 12-hour shift,” he says. “She is unbelievable.” 

The only thing that outpaces Luke’s maturity is his drive. At this level, the other thing that separates competitors is how much they want it. Even the most driven parents can push their kids for only so long; at some point, the kid has to love the game. And Luke has desire in spades. During the U.S. Amateur, he awoke each morning at five to work out before going to hit balls and prepare for his round. All the more remarkable when you consider this event is a gauntlet of golf, 36 holes a day every day until a winner is declared. Then, since they couldn’t afford to stay on site, he and Rhonda headed the 30 minutes north up to their two-bedroom Airbnb in Coos Bay, where Luke submerged himself in an ice bath, a trick he picked up watching a documentary on Kobe Bryant—a player, it should be noted, Luke is not really old enough to have watched. It’s the way he’s always been. Later, Rhonda will tell me that when Luke was 16, he decided his father, his only coach, couldn’t get him as far as he wanted to go, and he wanted to hire a new one. Rhonda had a deal with all her kids for their 16th birthday: They could each fly anywhere in the world with her, their pick. She told Luke he could not do both. They couldn’t swing it. He chose the coach. 

When I spoke to Luke months after the tournament, after the fall season of his freshman year playing at Florida State, he had gone even deeper, researching Navy SEAL training. No college-kid Tallahassee shenanigans for him. He’s getting up at 4 a.m. and going to bed each night by eight. 

On the morning of his semifinal match at the U.S. Amateur, Luke arrives in the lone red sweater he’d packed, which, to be honest, is not heavy enough to fend off the Pacific winds. His cream-colored pants hang just shy of his ankles, and it’s hard to tell if this is a fashion choice or he has grown past their hem. Either way, he seems to pull it off. Rhonda doesn’t appear any more nervous than the day before; in fact, she feels bad for Luke’s opponent, Nick Dunlap. Dunlap is looking to defend his title from the year prior and become the third player to win the Junior Am more than once, a feat matched only by Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth. But Rhonda laments the fact that since both his parents work, Dunlap has traveled to the event without them. “We’ve known Nick a long time,” she says. But they have sent with him his own caddie, and he is staying on site. Many of the kids have picked up local Bandon caddies—another expense for Rhonda—and that lack of familiarity shows up at tournament time. At one point the day before, after Luke’s caddie misread a putt, he’d become nervous that he had cost his player not just the hole, but per- haps the match. His pace quickened out ahead of Luke, but Luke gently tapped the bag, telling him to slow down, steadying the older man and getting him to match his steps on their way to the next tee box. 

The Prodigies No. 25 Hafer Bandon
Even the most driven parents can push their kids for only so long; at some point, the kid has to love the game.

The match goes back and forth. On the eighth hole, a mild controversy arises when Dunlap’s putt hangs on the end of the cup. Dunlap, shocked, stands still, then stands still longer, waiting for it to drop before moving to his ball. As he steps toward the ball, a putt Luke has conceded, it falls into the cup. Both players turn to the rules official following the group, who explains that Dunlap had a “reasonable amount of time” to wait for the putt to drop. Only in golf, where some of the equipment is made from the same material as space shuttles, is the language of the rules firmly ensconced in the 19th century; one man’s reasonable is another man’s unreasonable, especially when the Junior Am is on the line. Dunlap is denied the putt and the players move on, all square (or tied, rather, in one of the weirdest modern concessions of language in the USGA lexicon). 

After a blown 3-footer at the par-3 15th, Luke looks to have lost all momentum. Instead of heading into 16 tied, he’s again down one. Then, as it happens in match play, an error by Dunlap on 17 leaves an opening and Luke buries a 10-footer for the win. The match is tied heading to the par-5 18th. Dunlap yanks his drive into the muck, seemingly ensuring victory for Luke, who is 50 yards ahead of him in the fairway. Dunlap’s lie is so awful he advances it about 80 yards. Luke, with a chance to put it away, catches his hybrid a hair thin and the ball fades short and right of the green, leaving an uphill chip of 20 yards. 

Yes, you have to hit the shots. And Luke certainly can. But all week it’s felt like he’s also been battling an unseen opponent. Rhonda has been honest about their financial disadvantages compared to some of the other players. She was not prepared for the wind off the ocean herself and regretted having to buy a sweatshirt in the pro shop—an unforced error, so to speak, of the pocketbook. Luke’s father owns two small businesses that keep him busy, though Rhonda says he has threatened to fly out every day as Luke keeps winning. Between breaks in the matches I saw one player receive a massage near the practice green (and it looked painful, bordering on a chiropractic adjustment) from someone who appeared to be more part of an entourage than parent or coach. Luke admits that he has not grown up in the best part of Miami, that he sees how the finances are stacked against him and that it only gives him more motivation to perform. But other players simply wake up in their Bandon Dunes hotel room, go to the clubhouse for breakfast and take a shuttle to hit range balls, while Luke must drive 30 minutes to the resort to begin his sessions. This may not seem like a lot, but on 36-hole days—more if there’s a playoff—30 extra minutes of REM can be a lifeline. 

The Prodigies No. 25 Hafer Bandon
For elite juniors, a bucket-list destination becomes a battleground.

Rhonda watches her boy from afar. She texts updates to the family as he walks, slowly, to his third shot and assesses the lie, the green, the angle of approach. Is he tired? Has the week finally caught up with him? Dunlap hits a long approach that sizzles the air overhead. Luke’s chip comes up woefully short. What looked like an easy birdie and a chance to win the match now appears likely to be a par. 

That chip proves to be the difference. Both make 5, and on the 19th hole Luke flails one right into the hay. His legs disappear into those famous Bandon wisps, which brush his lower thighs; when his club descends, they snatch hold of the face and his ball shoots 40 yards left of the target. Dunlap’s approach awaits on the green. When Dunlap sinks the clinching putt, his caddie lets out a guttural “Atta boy!” that reverberates throughout the course. Luke quickly shakes hands and heads toward the clubhouse. 

I give Rhonda space and catch up when there is a small calm. “That’s golf,” she says. She is disappointed, but she’s a pragmatic woman. A month later, she’ll tell me a story about her son that I think is really about her. Luke once shot north of 80 in a tournament and came back that night to their room ready to quit. Rhonda let him steam and fume, then told him they finish what they start and that he would finish the tournament. If he wanted to quit, they could talk about it afterward. “He was so mad that night, he left the room. I don’t even know where he went,” she said. He came back and went to bed, and then both were up early for his tee time. “We actually started on hole 10 because he played so badly [the day before],” she said.

“He was, I think, in 40th place going into the final day, and then he broke the course record. Came in fourth. It just drove the point home again about you don’t give up, you don’t quit. And he knows I’m not going to let him. I told him, ‘At a certain point, I’m not going to be able to tell you this, because obviously you can do whatever you want, but as long as [you’re] under my control, there’s no quitting.’” 

She went on to say she’s made him commit to one year of college, but she knows his life soon will be out of her hands. “After that, I don’t know that I can make him play,” she said with a laugh. 

“I don’t know that I can make my kids do anything they don’t want to do.” 

Rhonda waits for her son by the clubhouse. He moves briskly but not brusquely, pausing to accept congratulations for making it as far as he did, but it clearly doesn’t make him feel better. Rhonda is more sanguine. She has accepted she has no control over Luke’s playing, his outcomes. “I know he’s a good golfer; I worry about him being a good person,” she says. Later, she will say, “A few years ago, when I really started traveling with him, he said, ‘Mom, you have to manage me. That’s what you gotta do for the rest of my life. You have to manage me.’” 

Rhonda’s already doing her part: They fly out the next day for a tournament in Chicago. In a month, she’ll drop Luke off at college. Junior golf will be over, and life will start anew for them both. Just then, Luke emerges from the clubhouse, lips pursed, and spots her: “Mom, you ready?”