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Advanced Placement, Golf

Special academies transform young duffers.

BRADENTON, Florida — When Andrea Watts was 15 years old, she was a star student at a top Denver prep school and seemed destined to attend an Ivy League college. But she wanted to become a pro golfer. So in August 2006, she and her mother, Sunee, decamped to Bradenton, just south of Tampa.

Their destination was the David Leadbetter Golf Academy, located on Highway 41, wedged between an all-you-can-eat oyster bar and a trailer park in a Florida strip mall. A big sign out front reads “The Home of Junior Golf.”

The Leadbetter Academy is revolutionizing the game of golf, accelerating the process of producing top-flight professional golfers. Most golfers used to peak at the age of 30. Today, many are making their mark a decade earlier.

“It is like Yale and Harvard — all the kids are striving for same goal, building an environment of excellence,” Leadbetter himself says. “We get these kids at the age of 13 or 14 and many are very average. Two or three years later, these guys and girls are real good players.”

Leadbetter’s example is spreading. The most prominent copycat is the International Junior Golf Academy, based in Hilton Head, South Carolina. Ex-high school golf star and New York foreign currency trader Ray Traviglione was bored with his job and the cold northern winters. So he moved south and started his own golf Academy.

The rival Academies’ curriculums look like mirror images: Kids play golf half a day and go to school half a day. On weekends, they compete in tournaments. At Hilton Head, Traviglione owns and operates his own school, the Heritage Academy, which offers a regular high school education in convenient half-day chunks.

The South Carolina and Florida-based golf academies cost roughly the same for tuition, room and board, almost $70,000 a year. Despite the price, the Hilton Head Academy has 150 full-time students and 650 summer campers. Traviglione sold the operation to a private equity group in the spring of 2007 for “north of $10 million,” though he continues to run the operation.

With financing from his private equity partners, Traviglione hopes to expand the Academy model to other U.S. locations, notably in California, where he hopes to attract more Asian players. Hilton Head already has many South American students, while Leadbetter’s Bradenton operation has succeeded in wooing more Asian clientele.

“The growth possibility for training Chinese and Koreans is immense,” Traviglione says. Future Academies could be established abroad, in South Africa, Western Europe or Latin American. “I think we could have five or six locations worldwide without any cannibalization,” Traviglione says.