U.S. JUNIOR AMATEUR
Junior Amateur competitor mentored by three-time major champion, Hall of Famer July 23, 2013 By David Shefter, USGA

Sean Crocker, 16, of Zimbabwe, defeated Austin Connelly, 7 and 5, in the Round of 64 Wednesday. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

TRUCKEE, Calif. – It never hurts to get advice from a professional golfer. When the golfer is a three-time major champion and a Hall of Famer, such information can be invaluable.

For the past several years, Sean Crocker has been mentored by Nick Price. Price and Crocker’s father, Gary, knew each other from growing up in the African nation of Zimbabwe. Once Sean became serious in golf five years ago, a friendship was born.

Through phone calls, e-mails and texts, Crocker, who is competing in his first U.S. Junior Amateur this week, has received messages of encouragement from Price. He told Crocker that everyone can have a bad day on the course and to try to play one shot at a time.

The 16-year-old has absorbed that advice well through the first three days of competition at Martis Camp Club. He easily qualified for match play at 2-over 146, then went out on Wednesday and rolled by Austin Connelly, of Irving, Texas, 7 and 5, making five birdies in shooting the equivalent of four under par – with the usual match-play concessions – over 13 holes.

I found a game coming into this tournament, said Crocker, who was born in Zimbabwe and moved to the U.S. 10 years ago. The first day was a continuation of my slump and the second day was better ball-striking and I started making some putts.

Crocker, who resides in the leafy Los Angeles suburb of Westlake Village, was introduced to the game through his father, a former standout junior golfer in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) before he turned to cricket and played professionally for the country. Gary set numerous records playing for the Zimbabwe National Cricket Team, but when political unrest hit the country 10 years ago, the family was forced off its farm.

They eventually settled in Southern California, where Gary now sells turf care supplies to golf course owners. He no longer plays cricket professionally, but Sean certainly got his athletic genes and sinew.

At nearly 6 feet tall, the younger Crocker has a powerful swing. During Wednesday’s match, he was outdriving Connelly by 50 yards and also used his length to gain advantages on par 5s. Two up at the par-5 seventh hole, Crocker knocked a 260-yard 3-wood approach from the left rough to 10 feet to set up a two-putt birdie, which won the hole. One hole later, he chunked a 7-iron tee shot on the 234-yard eighth to 5 feet for another birdie.  And on  the 642-yard 10th hole, Crocker hit 3-wood, 3-wood to reach the green in two. He closed out the match with a birdie putt on the 13th hole.

I can overpower this course, said Crocker. On a lot of the par 5s, I can go driver-iron [into the green].

Crocker credits some of that to his swing coach Brady Riggs. Riggs, who teaches out of Woodley Park in Van Nuys, Calif., also works with long-hitting Brandon Hagy, a 2012 U.S. Amateur semifinalist from nearby Thousand Oaks who plays for top-ranked California.

Maybe it’s the way Brady teaches both of us, said Crocker.

Although he admittedly has struggled this summer – he missed the cut at the recent Rolex Tournament of Champions at Lancaster (Pa.) Country Club – Crocker was invited to play in this year’s Zimbabwe Open in April. It was a chance to see family and friends and also compete against some of the top pros on the Sunshine Tour, a pro circuit primarily based in South Africa.

In his first event with pros, Crocker shot even par and tied for 37th to learn low-amateur honors over another rising Zimbabwe player, Ben Follett-Smith, who plays for Virginia Tech.

I missed two weeks of school, but it was worth it for the experience, said Crocker.It also might have been worth it for the chance to impress officials within Zimbabwe golf, especially with golf returning to the Olympics in 2016. Crocker could also be a candidate to play for Zimbabwe at next year’s World Amateur Team Championship in Japan.

Even though he’s been in the U.S. longer, Crocker is always eager to return to Zimbabwe. He likes the culture and the people. Back in Zimbabwe, Nick Price is given god-like status and Crocker aspires to follow in Price’s footsteps.

This fall, Crocker will complete his senior year at Westlake High, the same school that produced this year’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links champion, Lauren Diaz-Yi, whom Crocker knows quite well. Next fall, he’ll attend the University of Southern California.

But for now, Crocker is focused on the Junior Amateur, where he’ll face ninth-seeded Aaron Terrazas, of Bluffton, S.C., in the second round Thursday morning at 7:57 a.m. PDT.

And it’s a good bet that someone in Jupiter, Fla., will be following closely. Crocker was supposed to play with Price after the Rolex event, but weather forced a change in plans.

So the chatter has been relegated to phone calls and texts.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we talked tonight, said Crocker. Any words from a guy who was No. 1 is something special.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.