Spencer Ralston didn’t always finish atop the leaderboard.
In fact, a bad outing in middle school might have enhanced his game more than anything.
He tied for 76th at the U.S. Kids Golf World Championship in 2010, posting less-than-desirable scores for the rising seventh-grader that earned Atlanta Junior Golf Association Player of the Year honors earlier that summer. With an 81 in the final round, he was 31 strokes off the lead.
“A lot of kids will shut down and say, ‘I don’t want to work that hard,’ or they’ll say, ‘I want to be that good,’” said Gainesville boys golf coach Bryson Worley, who has mentored Ralston since he was nine years old.
“He definitely popped right back up and worked to take it to the next level.”
Four years later, the Gainesville sophomore has ascended that next level. And then some.
His scoring average of 70 this year was among the lowest in Red Elephants history. He won five tournaments during the 2014 season, and shot a team-best 63 on two occasions to enjoy one of the most dominant individual seasons in team history.
For his efforts, Ralston is The Times’ Boys Golf of the Year.
“I didn’t really have a number coming into the year, but I’m very happy with (70) — more than happy,” Ralston said. “I played exceptionally well this year.”
Ralston, who is committed to the University of Georgia, successfully defended his Hall County title with a 3-under 69 at Royal Lakes Golf Club in Flowery Branch. He also picked up wins in the Apple Mountain Invitational (63), the Champions Invitational (74), the North Georgia High School Classic (70-71) and The Invite (69-63).
Those victories allowed Gainesville to win 10 of the 11 events it entered this season, barely missing a sweep after finishing third in the Class AAAAA state meet.
Ralston will take those 10 team wins over his personal five any day.
“It just seems cooler as a team, because we all hang out together every day and practice to make each other better,” he said. “I think it would be more fulfilling to win it as a team than me winning as an individual.”
Ralston enjoyed the best of both worlds on a regular occasion, as Gainesville won every tournament when he finished first.
His first 63 of the season, a 9-under par effort at the Apple Mountain Invitational in Clarkesville, anchored a 270 team score for the Red Elephants, shattering the previous record by 13 strokes.
Three days later, his 36 on the back nine of the Hall County Championships was enough to rally from a two-stroke deficit on the front nine and edge teammates Nathan Williams and Lawson King for low medalist. Gainesville ended up with a 283, the team’s second-lowest score on record.
“Our team competes with each other hard, so it makes everybody work harder,” Ralston said. “It better prepares us when we get to the tournaments.”
Fittingly enough, it was the same string of tournaments a year earlier that Ralston broke out for the first time at the prep level.
As a freshman, he didn’t qualify for Gainesville’s top five entering the 2013 Apple Mountain Invitational, the same tournament he tyrannized a year later. He managed to crack the starting lineup for the Hall County Championships, and carded a 72 to win his first high school title.
He’s been in the lineup ever since.
“I think the biggest change between this year and last year was his length,” Worley said. “The next change was maturity.
“In the short game, he learned how to hit different shots around the green. His putting has definitely improved.”
More importantly, Ralston is making the turn from teenage golf prodigy to maturing student of the game.
Already a long-distance driver off the tee, he continues to add length through Gainesville’s strength and conditioning program. Worley has worked extensively with him on green reading, which has sharply improved his putting ability.
“He’s very dedicated — he lives to be good at it,” Worley said. “He really works at what he does. He’s always asking and he’s always trying to learn, whether it’s from us or from older guys.”
It’s this time of year Ralston endures his toughest tests.
His summer schedule is packed with national-level tournaments with other standout golfers in his age group, but he just continues to win. He shot a 9-under 136 over two days to win the Orchard Hills Classic last Thursday in Newnan, giving him the current lowest scoring average in the Southeastern Junior Golf Tour.
“It’s a good start to the summer,” Ralston said.
Next up is the Footjoy Invitational on Monday at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, N.C., then the Rolex Tournament of Champions on June 23-27 in Nashville. The U.S. Junior Amateur Championship is July 21-26 in The Woodlands, Texas, with previous champions including Tiger Woods, Hunter Mahan and Jordan Spieth.
On top of that, Ralston has already made a push to play amongst professionals. He shot a 72 in a U.S. Open local qualifying tournament on May 13 at Chateau Elan, missing a berth in the sectional qualifier by a single stroke.
Those kind of numbers set him up to eventually make a promising run at reaching a PGA event as an amateur while playing for Georgia.
“If that’s something he wants to do, I wouldn’t put it past him,” Worley said. “If he gets to UGA and he’s ready to go, that means he’s had a pretty good last two years with us.”
Ralston is sure to win more tournaments over that span, but knows there’s more discipline to be found on the golf course.Even if his name continues to headline the leaderboard.
“It’s just kind of built up to the point where it’s an expectation,” Ralston said. I’ve gotten to the point where I can get down after my round and talk to coach Worley or somebody about what I did wrong and how can I learn from it for the next time.”