All the training, all the preparation, all the beaten range balls paid off for Carl Underwood just over two weeks ago when he rolled in a 30-foot putt at Meadow Springs Country Club to win the Class 4A state title on the fifth playoff hole.
Underwood, a Richland High School junior, began taking lessons year-round with the Meadow Springs PGA teaching professional Jason Aichele before he started playing high school golf, and the last five years culminated in Underwood sinking that pivotal putt. What followed for both Underwood and Aichele — who got to watch the entirety of the playoff — was pure joy.
“Watching Carl make that putt felt better for me than if I had sunk it myself,” said Aichele, who received a big hug from Underwood for his efforts when the playoff ended.
Aichele, the 2014 and 2015 PGA Pacific Northwest Teacher of the Year, started teaching golfers at Meadow Springs in 2009 and became the country club’s teaching pro in 2011. While he instructs players of all abilities, his most prestigious work is done with high school golfers who enroll in his year-round program with aspirations of playing in college.
Eight high school players are in the program, and all of them qualified for their respective state tournaments this season.
Always in season
A big selling point of Aichele’s program is that it truly is year-round, with a custom-designed indoor training facility making practicing during the winter not only possible, but practical. Construction on the 3,200 square-foot building wrapped up in 2011, and the facility features a launch monitor — a projector screen that tracks the flight of balls hit into hit — a synthetic putting and chipping green, and nets to hit practice balls into. In Aichele’s eyes, the benefits of not having an off-season for competitive young golfers are obvious.
“The high school season starts at the end of February,” he said, “so the kids that don’t stop working during the winter don’t spend the first three, four, five weeks getting their game ready to go.”
Aichele got many of the concepts for the design and features of the facility from friend and PGA Tour player David Hearn. Hearn and Aichele played together on the University of Wyoming golf team, and before Aichele started teaching at Meadow Springs in 2009, he caddied for Hearn at tour events for three years.
“I’ve learned so much from David Hearn,” Aichele said. “Every time I go out there with him, I learn more and more about teaching, new equipment, training, nutrition, all that stuff.”
What Aichele hasn’t learned from caddying for Hearn or hanging around tour players, he’s picked up from his close connections with college coaches. For example, a player might be taking year-round lessons from Aichele, but that doesn’t mean he wants them to drop all other sports and activities to focus on their game — in fact it’s just the opposite.
“When college coaches ask if kids play other sports, if I say ‘yes,’ they say ‘perfect.’ That’s exactly what they want,” Aichele said. “You’re limiting yourself from being a better person and a better athlete if you don’t play other sports.”
Aichele’s connections with college coaches is an invaluable resource for his students looking to play after they graduate from high school. As a result, helping students navigate the world of college golf recruiting, which can be difficult without the right help, is as much a part of Aichele’s job as fixing slices.
“A lot of times if you win a tournament, nobody even knows about it,” Underwood said. “So it’s really nice to have a coach that knows a lot of coaches around the U.S. to let them know how you’re doing.”
In his five years as the teaching pro at Meadow Springs, Aichele has found each student’s path to getting their game right is different, and his job is to figure out how each individual player learns best. In order to take Underwood from being a good high school golfer to a state champion, Aichele devoted most of their practice time to improving mental fortitude.
“When I was younger, I’d always throw clubs, slam clubs, whatever,” Underwood said. “(Aichele has) really helped my mental game, like when you hit a bad shot, move on to the next one. If you hit a bad shot, it’s not going to kill you.”
Aichele has four students playing in college, three of which are at WSU — junior Nick Mandell (Southridge), freshman Austin Brown (Southridge) and sophomore BreeLin Wanderscheid (Goldendale) — and Richland grad Drew McCollough at Wyoming. McCollough led the Cowboys in scoring average this year (72.1) and finished sixth in the Mountain West Championship.
Next up for Aichele is the 49th PGA Professional Championship, to be played June 26-29 at Turning Stone Resort in Verona, N.Y.
Aichele made it into the tournament field by shooting well at at Pacific Northwest sectional qualifiers. The top 20 finishers at the Professional Championship get to compete in the 2016 PGA Championship, July 25-31 at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey.
Playing in a PGA event, especially a major, has been a goal for Aichele since he started caddying for Hearn. If he gets to play in the PGA Championship, Aichele said he would likely stop focusing as much on his own game and devote more of his time to educating his students.