Moving to the next tee

Just as a fish outgrows its tank, Rij might be outgrowing Hunt Valley.

On the practice range, Rij can't unleash a full swing with a driver without risking the ball sailing over the net that separates the range from the course.

The greens are no longer a match for Rij's putting. At the May tournament in Hershey, he spent the first round trying to adjust from Hunt Valley's "mundane" greens, as Mayur puts it, to ones that are more difficult to read.

Frustrated after two-putting and three-putting his way to a disappointing round, Rij told his parents to go shopping. So they did — for three hours. When they came back, Rij was still there, putter in hand. But instead of butchering the putts as he did earlier in the day, he was sinking them.

"I think I've got it figured out," Rij said.

The next day, Rij cut nine strokes off his score and won the tournament.

As Rij matures, the courses will become tougher, and he needs a home club that will allow him to grow.

"[Hunt Valley] was good until now," Mayur said. "But now we're seriously looking at a facility that has more practice area."

Albert seemed to think that Hunt Valley provides a "fair challenge" to a golfer of any ability.

"I'd say on a [difficulty] scale of one to 10, it's probably an eight," Albert said.

Rij disagrees — respectfully, of course.

"This is actually one of the easier [courses]," Rij said. "Out of 10, I would give this course a three or four."

Time to age up?

In addition to where he will play, the Patel "team" has another important decision to make this summer — who he will play.

That's because Rij barely makes the cutoff date to play in the under-14 division for another season. For a typical teenager, the lure of hoisting trophies and securing the top ranking would be too much to pass up, making the decision easy. But Rij is hardly a typical teen.

After Rij played in the tour's Tournament of Champions at season's end in late May, he and his family were flying home from Orlando, Fla., winner's trophy stowed in the overhead bin.

Mayur leaned over and asked Rij whether he had given any more thought to next year — would he want to age up this fall or continue his reign in the 14s?

Golf is such a mental sport, and the psychological benefits to playing well and, occasionally, winning, are vast. But that's not how Rij sees it.

"I've already accomplished everything I can accomplish in this level," Rij told his dad. "If I don't win again, it'd be a letdown. I may as well just go up because I've got nothing to lose."

Quite the calculated reasoning for a 14-year-old.

"He has a lot of maturity," Mayur said. "He understands the sport and where he stands. If we have a decision that's a split decision, we talk it out, and his rationale is usually sound. It makes sense. It's an open partnership."

Added Rij: "I've already accepted the fact that the first year [playing up] is not going to be extremely easy for me. I'm going to be playing with older kids and longer yardage."

Even if he decides to age up and play with the big boys, Rij insists on maintaining the same work ethic that vaulted him to the top of the ranking system in the first place, making it look like, well, child's play.

As Rij warms up before a practice round on the driving range, a club member approaches.

"You're Rij Patel?" the man inquires, his voice inflecting with a blend of delight and wonder.

"It's nice to meet you," Rij replies humbly, extending his hand to the admiring passerby.

After a few more practice shots, he collects his bag and heads toward the first tee.