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Whittier Christian golf has been 'something special' on and off the course
Phil Underwood calls it “The Divot Group,” and unlike other after-school troupes at Whittier Christian High, joining is mandatory.
Coaching golf off Beach Boulevard since the mid-1990s, Underwood plays no favorites.
State titlists, first-year letterers, newcomers, every Heralds golfer past and present has been a member of the coach’s exclusive club.
Golf often enough at Whittier’s Candlewood Country Club, and you’re bound to see the crew in action.
“Every three weeks,” Underwood said recently, “a group of kids fills divots on the golf course for three hours. And they have to meet these obligations to compete. The kids realize that’s what you have to do.
“And it doesn’t matter how good you are. You’re going to have your turn.”
Underwood admits to being a bit stubborn when it comes to this stuff. But he expects more from his golfers than long drives and low scores. He tolerates little.
Fortunately, he said, this year’s team is laden with kids willing to arrive early, stay late and spend the intervening hours hard at work.
Additionally, Underwood’s proud to note that of all the boys golf teams in Southern California, his touts the highest cumulative grade-point average.
“These kids are something special,” he said.
And for everything Mitchell Briley, Karsten Briley, Matt Rafter, Brian Rafter, Matt White and Connor Chyr do off the course, they’re equally as talented and driven on it.
“My expectations are high for how my kids treat people,” Underwood said. “We don’t have kids that teachers complain about. There’s a uniqueness about these kids. Our GPA is real good, and it’s a priority for the program.
“I want these kids to do the best they can do,” Underwood added. “You don’t have to have a high GPA – just show that you’re doing all you can do.”
Underwood tells a story:
Early last season, Whittier Christian played a team that had freshmen who Underwood was told hadn’t much experience swinging a golf club, let alone playing competitive rounds. This opposing coach put those newcomers in his final twosome.
Underwood originally had baseball convert Brian Rafter in his last group because this particular match was also his first.
Shortly after revealing his starting lineup, Underwood said Rafter suggested putting someone else in his spot, for a more experienced golfer, Rafter surmised, could play well while also mentoring his playing partners.
Underwood agreed, and replaced Rafter with his brother, Matt, the reigning Olympic League Most Valuable Player.
“Coaches typically play behind the last group,” Underwood said, “and here’s the league MVP playing with kids who’d never played before. Each kid probably hit three, four shots before they got to Matt’s drive. But Matt would go and help these kids find their balls.
“I swear, he spent the whole day between shots looking in bushes, looking in trees.”
Rhythmic a sport as golf is, Underwood feared Rafter’s pace of play that afternoon would negatively affect his score.
He said he would’ve been satisfied with anything.
The kid shot even par.
“Matt knew it was a big deal to these kids,” Underwood said, “and he treated them with class, respect, with no expression of exasperation, of frustration. Here’s two freshmen, and one day they might be decent players, and they’ll think about Matt and how he treated them with kindness, humility, respect.
“That’s the way you should treat people in this game,” Underwood continued. “But how often do you not? How often do you look for excuses, for someone else to blame for a bad shot, for a low score?”
Whittier Christian returned all but one golfer from last year’s team.
The Heralds in 2015 finished second in the Olympic League despite having the league’s MVP and three other first-team representatives.
Whittier Christian under Underwood has six league championships, but hasn’t recaptured glory since 2013 – when this year’s senior class of four was cutting their collective teeth as freshmen at the school.
Three-plus years of experience, Karsten Briley said, is invaluable when used strategically.
“We’ve played the same courses every year now,” added Briley, a senior who in February signed to golf next year at The Master’s College. “We know the right places to hit the ball. ... We have the same goals: to win league, to go to CIF.
“We know with our experience, and the good players we have, that we can get there.”
Twenty-plus years of teams, and Underwood can’t recall one closer than this one.
Because Whittier Christian has only six letter winners, competition runs rampant in practice. Usually, junior Matt White said, the seniors reign.
“I’ll get them soon,” he joked.
No matter who’s longest off the tee, though, who sticks an approach closest to the pin, whose score is lowest that day, the camaraderie, Underwood and others believe, makes playing worthwhile.
“As juniors, we bonded,” Chyr said. “We’re friends outside of school, and that makes golf fun. Everyone on the team is approachable, and Coach is a calming presence. He knows our potential and encourages us. He knows what we can do.
“We take every practice, every shot, every round seriously,” Chyr continued, “because if we practice like we play, it’ll only help in matches.”
Ask these kids why they golf, and get six different answers.
White, for instance, likes that you can golf your entire life. Chyr enjoys playing rounds with his father and grandfather.
The Rafters and Brileys play for the thrill of competing with and against a brother, and their fraternal bond permeates the proverbial locker room.
Every golfer this year, regardless of grade, Underwood said, has something to offer.
“We’re all so confident playing with each other,” Matt Rafter said.
Whittier Christian finished March unbeaten.
Three different golfers received medals last month for low rounds, and, as a quintet, the Heralds beat their eight opponents by 469 total strokes.
Underwood has the fifth golfer he didn’t have last season, but has coached long enough to know that a team can always play better.
“Experience humbles you,” he said. “These kids know they shouldn’t get too full of themselves.”
As for wisdom Whittier Christian’s senior class wants to leave behind, Brian Rafter urges underclassmen to enjoy this, because this goes by quickly.
Karsten Briley hopes his successors realize how fun golfing is – errant shots, missed putts and all.
Whittier Christian’s boys golf program truly is greater than the sum of its parts.
Six golfers and a longtime coach working towards a common goal – one divot at a time.
“These kids love the path,” Underwood said. “A lot of kids care so much about what they look like out here. The trivialities. These guys love the battle. They’re not afraid to lay it on the line, be embarrassed. ...
“They’re not afraid to let it all hang out.”
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