Making golf fun is key to St. Joe golf coach’s success

St. Joseph High School golf coach Ryan Walters shares a humorous moment with Junior Cailey Rooker at Berrien Hills Golf Club.
St. Joseph High School assistant coach Rich Fairchild works with sophomore Leah Barlow during a White Team practice at Blossom Trails Golf Club. Fairchild is in his 5th year as assistant coach.

Making golf fun is key to

St. Joe golf coach’s success

By Tom O’Neill

          St. Joseph girls’ golf coach, Ryan Walters, doesn’t profess to be a great player. In fact, he doesn’t get to play that often but you’ll find him around a putting green, on a driving range and even in his yard teaching.

          Walters, a graduate of Grand Valley State University, played baseball up until the ninth grade. “My dad played and we used to hit balls around the yard. I eventually quit baseball and started golfing.

His history degree, along with minors in psychology and physical education from GVSU landed him a teaching position at St. Joseph High School in 2001. A Masters Degree in History from Western Michigan followed, then coaching. The rest is history.

          In the last seven years his teams have captured the West SMAC title six times, finishing second in 2011. The Bears have captured four straight SMAC titles, gone to the regionals the last four years since moving to Division 2, having two first place and two second place finishes.

          At the state level, St. Joseph has qualified six of the past seven years, finishing third in 2014, fifth in 2015 and fourth in 2016. All-State honors have gone to Sammie Averill, Hannah Grall, Casey Singular, Yuna Yang along with sisters Courtney and Cailey Rooker.

          But how does a high school world history teacher get 16 or more girls out to play golf at St. Joseph when other schools struggle to field a full team? Walters laughed when asked to divulge his secrets.

          It begins with a middle school golf tournament at Blossom Trails Golf Club’s Par 3 course. Walters says for many this is their first introduction. “It’s very casual. There’s an eight-shot limit. We give out medals at the conclusion.” He says it is a great way to meet parents, talk about First Tee and get to know the kids.

          A typical day of practice for his Blue Team involves playing nine holes. Usually each player has a partner. “We switch it up a lot,” explained Walters. “We might do alternate shot, scramble, worst and best shot or best ball. We give it a game-like feel.” The Bears also spend time on the range hitting balls, putting, chipping and sand shots.

          On the practice green he’ll set up circles around the holes. Players are told how many balls have to be in the circle before moving to the next one. “It’s building mental toughness. These are pressure drills while everyone is watching.”

          Walters says success breeds success. “When they see individual success stories they work harder and the team benefits with higher expectations. We have fun, but we’re also trying to be successful.” Walters says it’s a mindset of “this is what we’re going to do.”

          The White Team is under assistant coach, Rich Fairchild. Practices are similar. “Occasionally we will mix both squads together, sometimes playing in the same tournaments. They’ll play four or five varsity tournaments and four JV tournaments. Four varsity tournaments qualify them for their varsity letter.”

          Walters has his own children involved in The First Tee. “We hit lots of whiffle balls in our yard. Dillon is ten, Marley eight and Lucy six. In addition to The First Tee, the older children participated in the Lakeshore Junior Golf Association and Junior PGA at Harbor Shores.

          He did mention an allegiance issue at home. His wife, Jennifer, is a Lakeshore graduate “but converted”. The two met on a blind date in 2002, marrying in 2004.

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