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Standout golfer Patel headed for Harvard

Hunt Valley resident Rij Patel will play golf this fall at Harvard University. The recent McDonogh graduate has been playing in national tournaments for the past two years.
Hunt Valley resident Rij Patel will play golf this fall at Harvard University. The recent McDonogh graduate has been playing in national tournaments for the past two years. (File photo/Baltimore Sun)

Rij Patel knew he had to change his unorthodox golf swing when he felt recurring pain.

It seemed the self-taught swing was backfiring on the Hunt Valley resident and McDonogh School graduate.

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"I was having way too many upper back and neck injuries," he said. "There was a loop at the top of my swing. I was bringing it inside and then swinging over the top. People were surprised I was able to pull off such good shots with that swing."

His revamped swing has been a work in progress the past two years.

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"It looks normal now and it's consistent with what most coaches would teach," Patel said.

One thing has remained constant: He's been a consistently great golfer.
And he continues to win local tournaments, even though that's only part of what he does.

"I have also been competing in premier national events for two years," Patel said.

The 18-year-old Patel loaded up on tournaments this summer to sharpen his game for college.

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The 5-foot-10, 150-pound Patel will play at Harvard University, where practices start Aug. 29.

He believes he has a legitimate opportunity to crack the starting lineup, but he understands it will be difficult.

"I think if I am playing my best golf, there's a good chance I will be in the top five," said Patel, who chose Harvard over Yale and Columbia universities and the University of Pennsylvania.

The golf coaches at Harvard are eager to see what he can do for the Crimson.

"He would be a strong prospect for any school in the country," said Fred Schernecker, Harvard's director of golf. "His golf career has been top-notch. He has done extremely well in events, but also qualifying for the premier events in the country."

Schernecker calls Patel's calm demeanor his biggest asset.

It's what he covets in a golfer.

"Ninety or 95 percent of what we look for is how they carry themselves on the golf course," he said, "whether they are in control of their emotions, how they approach their game and react to shots. That's really what impressed us about Rij."

McDonogh coach Wright Abbot agrees strongly with Schernecker, and also praises Patel's character.

He talks more about his character than his golf skills in an interview.

"He's been an extraordinary golfer in the MIAA (Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association)," the coach said. "But if you ask other league coaches, the first thing they will say is that he is a better human being and how much respect they have for him. He never loses his temper. The Loyola coach [William McLean] said he has been teaching 40 years and never has seen anybody like him."

Abbot says Patel is the best golfer he's coached in 31 years on the job at the Owings Mills school.

It's easy to understand why.

He played two years on the International Junior Golf Tour before high school and earned the No. 1 ranking in the 14-and-under Northeast Division in 2013.

He accomplished bigger things last year, qualifying for the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship in South Carolina after shooting a 71 and 68 at the United States Naval Academy Golf Club.

"It's one of the toughest tournaments in the world to qualify for," Schernecker said. "So qualifying for that is a really big deal."

This summer, Patel finished second in the AJGA Philadelphia Junior Tournament.

He also competed in several national events, including the Haas Family Invitational in North Carolina and the Rolex Tournament of Champions in Georgia.

Abbot said Patel paved the way for a successful golf career before he even started coaching him in high school.

"He would just play 36 holes a day," Abbot explained of his middle school years. "He's gotten very good because he's obsessed about it. He has a perfectionist's personality."

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