Thanks to my reputation for keeping things of sentimental value dating back decades, I still have in my possession evidence (an “advising profile” from the University of Wisconsin) reminding me of my academic prowess — if you want to call it that — at Lincoln High School in Wisconsin Rapids, where I ranked 87th out of 568 graduates in the mighty Class of 1984.
That is relevant for the purpose of this column because, over the next three weeks, rankings are going to dominate our coverage of Wisconsin junior golf with the annual update of our class-by-class rankings. A popular feature on Wisconsin.Golf since our launch in January of 2016, they are intended to serve as a barometer for what a college golf coach might see when he or she explores the young talent in the state from their critical point of view in the recruiting process.
However, ol’ No. 87 from his graduating class will be the first to tell you that — 36 years later — I don't remember the name of No. 1 any more than I do No. 568. Likewise, I subscribe to the theory that any set of rankings needs to come with a warning label: They are subject to change and, in fact, that is the point.
Rankings, whether in the classroom or on the golf course and regardless of the criteria applied to develop them, should be used as motivation. Those at the top of their class should use them as motivation to hold onto their lofty perch while those further down each list should use them as motivation to find new ways to climb the ranks.
Over the five years I’ve been doing this exercise, that is the spirit, for the most part, in which the rankings have been received. I have received emails from parents and, more recently, junior golfers themselves (some still in middle school) curious as to just how our rankings work.
These are among the most important things I tell them:
- They are literally one person's opinion of how golfers in each class compare against one another.
There is no complex points system, no panel of judges and no scouting combine where I measure swing speed and chart chipping or putting execution. Our rankings are based on my 30 years covering junior golf in Wisconsin and being able to forecast how the next generation of golfers will perform at the college level based on indicators that have worked for previous generations on my watch.
- Don’t confuse our rankings with others you find on the Internet. Each of them serve a purpose, but many of them I would describe as the best rankings money can buy.
While they operate off a points system, those rankings are weighted significantly toward junior golfers who compete in events on the American Junior Golf Association, Hurricane Junior Golf Tour, Future Champions, Mid-American Junior Golf Tour and in other national events that NCAA Division I coaches, especially, seem to covet. Events on those tours are considered to show more rigor in a golfer’s schedule than most tournaments in their state, although several events Wisconsin do qualify.
Still, rigor usually comes with a cost — a rather significant cost for the average checkbook, in my opinion. In fact, I came across one Wisconsin golfer who has played in 25 of those events during 2020, a load I estimate to have cost him $5,000 in entry fees alone.
Our rankings try to factor cost out of the equation. While the results from regional and national tours are used in head-to-head comparisons between golfers who play in them, they are mostly used to identify golfers who should be using those experiences — playing events on more difficult golf courses at longer yardages — to dominate back at home.
- Rigor is still a significant component in our evaluation. However, we rely on established events in the state that provide a greater opportunity for head-to-head comparisons.
The Wisconsin PGA Junior Foundation and other governing bodies supporting junior golf in Wisconsin have developed a robust schedule of multiple-day events that have long satisfied a key criteria college coaches look for in junior golfers in terms of rigor. The WPGA Junior Championship, the Wisconsin Dells Junior Championship, the Golf Coaches Association of Wisconsin College Showcase, the Wisconsin State Golf Association Junior Boys Championship, the Sherri Steinhauer Girls Invitational, the WPGA Junior Tour Championship and the Lake Arrowhead Invitational are among the quality tests and scheduling “musts” each year for junior golfers, especially those with an eye toward playing golf in college.
However, spoiler alert, results of men’s and women’s events on the WPGA and the WSGA calendars have had a significant impact in our 2020 rankings updates.
In particular, the men’s and women’s Wisconsin State Opens produced eye-popping results among junior golfers who not only showed courage in competing against older golfers, some twice their age, but in excelling against them. Once junior golfers become comfortable with the pressure of competitive golf and have a year or two of multiple-day junior tournaments under their belts, the State Open should be the first events scheduled each year with WSGA stroke-play and match-play championships not far behind.
- High school events are used to identify golfers in each class, but — outside of perhaps the WIAA state tournament — they don’t carry much weight in our rankings process.
Many high school tournaments are played at a yardage shorter than WPGA Junior Tour events staged in the summer and significantly shorter than what they will be expected to play once they make the jump to college golf. High school golf is still the No. 1 competitive platform when it comes to drawing the most new junior golfers to the game, but it is structured to be as positive an experience for the No. 5 golfer in the lineup as it is competitive for the No. 1 stick. The inevitable leveling of the playing field to accomplish that goal is more obvious in certain areas, making it tough for No. 1s to distance themselves from Nos. 2 and 3.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 had a massive impact on the high school game in 2020, to put it mildly. Not only did it wipe out the boys high school season in its entirety (it’s been 531 days since the final putt was holed at the 2019 WIAA state tournament), it also reduced the pool of teams playing WIAA girls golf by 25 percent and, with it, eliminated many of the multi-team Saturday individuals that would offer a glimpse at the balance of power.
In a normal year, however, high school golf still provides a pivotal piece of evaluation in drawing conclusions about a junior golfer’s college potential. Specifically, do they play nice with others (particularly their own teammates) and are they having as great an impact on high school golf as high school golf is having on them?