Rij Patel

Rij Patel, 14, practices his golf swing in his backyard. The Hunt Valley Golf Club member is the No. 1 golfer in the 14-and-under division of the International Junior Golf Tour, a prestigious circuit that has produced such professional standouts as Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan and Paula Creamer. (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara Haddock Taylor / July 4, 2012)

Rij Patel is every golf coach's nightmare. His swing is as unconventional as they come. Rij describes it as "weird" and "bad," and it's enough to make nearby golfers do a double take. But their amusement turns to awe as his contorted clubface finally straightens itself out at the last possible moment before impact.

Rij is also every coach's dream. As metal meets ball, one can't help but wonder how such power comes from the Rij's frame — small, even for a 14-year-old. He's mature beyond his years, is intelligent and spends much of his time practicing at Hunt Valley Golf Club, where he and his parents belong. Rij also happens to be the No. 1 golfer in the 14-and-under division of the International Junior Golf Tour, a prestigious circuit that has produced such professional standouts as Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan and Paula Creamer.

But as junior golf, and youth sports in general, becomes more extravagant, Rij and his family do it the old-fashioned way.

"What makes Rij interesting and kind of special is his personality, his disposition," said John Albert, director of golf at Hunt Valley. "He's very aware of the etiquette and rules of the game, and the traditions of the game. He's very respectful of everybody around him and the golf course."

So while the posses surrounding top junior golfers grow to include trainers, dietitians and sport psychologists, the Patel "team," as Rij's father, Mayur, calls it, remains stable. Rij, an incoming freshman at McDonogh, along with his dad and his mom, Ulupi, simply concentrate on enjoying the sport they all love in its purest form — if the end goal, a college scholarship, comes with it, then all the better.

Beginning Tuesday in San Diego, Rij will compete in the Callaway Junior World Championships. A solid four rounds of golf against the strongest field Rij has faced would make that goal a little closer to reality.

Northern exposure

When a 1-year-old Rij sat gripping a plastic putter in his walker at the family's Cockeysville home, his parents never could've imagined they had a prodigious talent on their hands.

In fact, even when Rij decided before the just-concluded season that he wanted to pursue tournaments on the IJGT level, the top ranking seemed like a pipe dream. But he made the most of the five tournaments he played in, climbing steadily with each event. In mid-May, playing in a tournament at Hershey (Pa.) Country Club, Rij took a two-stroke lead into the final hole. Despite a rare bogey on the treacherous 18th, Rij won the tournament and, with it, the top slot on the tour's worldwide leader board.

It was a victory, not just for the Patel family, which preaches respect over ranking points and etiquette over entourages, but also for golfers in the tour's Northeast division. Often, the Southeast region garners the most attention with 12 months of outdoor golf available.

"In the past few winters, not this winter, but in the winters before, this course would be closed," said Rij, gesturing down at the heavily wooded Hunt Valley from a veranda. "But this winter was kind of mild, so it wasn't really a disadvantage this winter."

Hank Haney, Tiger Woods' former coach, operates an academy on Hilton Head Island, S.C.; it has become the IJGT's biggest feeder.

"They have a lot of international kids that board there," Mayur said. "They stay there and [golf] is all they do. They do some curricular stuff in the daytime, but at 2 p.m., they go and play golf. They all have their coaches."

Rij has never been to Hilton Head Island and hasn't spent his youth rushing into an intense golf regimen like the kids at the academy.

But that's not to say Rij isn't taking the necessary steps to ensure he reaches his goal of playing college golf.

"Rij seems to understand what it takes to play at a level that he wants to play at," Albert said. "His parents have helped him to understand that practice is a part of it. He seems to really enjoy practicing."

During the summer, Rij spends about five days a week navigating Hunt Valley's three nine-hole courses. But in his limited spare time, Rij does normal teenager stuff. He and his friends will play the front nine, dive into the pool at the club, grab a bite, then finish the back nine. He plays tennis, squash and soccer, though he plans on giving up tennis because it coincides with the school golf season.

Rij also plays golf video games — "I'm much better on the video games. I shoot way under par." In fact, when Rij played at TPC Sawgrass, the parents marveled at how well their kids knew the course. How did they know every dogleg and hazard? From their Xbox 360s, of course.

"I could see these kids — they know everything about every hole," Mayur said. "They just can't wait to get to [holes] 16, 17, 18 because that's what the whole tournament's about. You get that sense of excitement when you get there."