Golf Q&A: C.J. Gatto of ACDS
Thursday, November 30, 2017
C.J. Gatto is a former college golfer from UNLV. Following his graduation in 2008, he competed professionally both in the United States and around the world. In 2012, he co-founded and became the executive director of American College Development Solutions (ACDS), an international company designed to help aspiring junior golfers to prepare to play college golf.
Recently, we asked Gatto to share with us his journey from junior golf to today.
1. Take us back briefly into your golf career. An accomplished high school junior player from Ohio, did you experience the typical recruiting process? Landing at one of the top golf programs in the country, UNLV, talk about your college experience both on the course and in the classroom.
As a junior golfer, I have to first say thank you to my parents on their sacrifices and commitment to my golf career. Although my dad was a high school basketball coach, and that was a huge focus in our house, we always knew golf was priority to allow me a great path after college.
I do want to mention my basketball as I grew up playing AAU against LeBron James on a regular basis. I started on my high school team as a sophomore, and I felt without this experience and growing up as a "fighter," my golf career would have never got to the level it did.
Going through the golf recruiting process, I would say I was a good player but always felt I was behind other talented Columbus, Ohio, kids. Growing up in Columbus with all of the great courses, top-notch juniors to play against and learning from the older Mid-Am guys really set a great foundation for me.
In regards to my game, I always drove the ball very well and was a grinder. There were many schools that passed over me as a junior, but I had my plan. My parents and I stuck to it, and I was fortunate enough to earn a Top 10 finish at the AJGA Bluegrass Junior, which led to me gaining entry into the AJGA Las Vegas Founders event. At the Founders, I ended up finishing second, and I like to think that went a long way with my eventual school, UNLV.
As I mentioned, I had a plan and that was always to go to UNLV. It started due to my basketball roots and love of watching the Runnin' Rebel teams of the early '90s. When things in my mind started to get more focused on golf, it was actually around the time UNLV won the 1998 NCAA championship.
On a family trip after UNLV had won, things just clicked and there was truly no other situation I wanted more than to play golf at UNLV. My mom and I had our debates on this goal of mine, while we drove across the USA listening to Dave Matthews and more AJGA events. While on my official visit, she finally knew it was the best fit for me and would lead to life success on and off the course.
With UNLV having such a deep and talented team when I came into school in 2003 (Ryan Moore, Travis Whisman, JC Deacon, Andres Gonzalez, Ryan Keeney), gaining an athletic scholarship was not even a thought. Coming from a middle class family that was something we considered, however, it was more about gaining the best opportunities to be successful.
With academics being stressed heavily in our family, I was able to obtain an academic scholarship, various local scholarships and scholarships available at UNLV. At the end of the day, per investigating these options, this equaled any athletic-based scholarships I would have had at other schools. It just goes to show that there is always a way to make it work when you really want something, and I didn't care whether I could tell my friends I got "X" percent athletic scholarship.
I could go on for days on my experience playing at UNLV. However, getting to play Southern Highlands and Shadow Creek alongside the other great courses in Vegas any day, any time is crazy to look back on! Being around so many great players and the competitive environment pushed me every day without me even knowing.
I will never forget the support of the Rebel Foundation, the city of Las Vegas in general, being our golf representative for SAAC, graduating with a 3.5 GPA, being a GCAA All-America Scholar and having a better overall collegiate scoring average than Adam Scott!
2. You had the opportunity to play for Dwaine Knight, one of the most respected college golf coaches in the history of the sport. Share your thoughts on what it was like to play for him and what were some of your most memorable moments with your coach?
This is actually an emotional question to answer. Firstly, I want to congratulate Coach Knight on the 30-year anniversary of the Rebel Foundation this year. Without his vision and commitment to the Rebel Foundation, UNLV golf would not be what it is today.
When you think of Coach Knight, I not only think he is one of the most respected coaches in the sport but also among all coaches throughout any sport in the NCAA.
With so many great Rebels going on to play professionally, Coach Knight also values the success of all former players in any field they are associated with. I think it's a testament as well to his imprint on the city of Las Vegas and the network players get to build off the golf course.
I am a structured kind of person and quite independent when it comes to doing what I need to do be successful. Coach Knight always encouraged us do what we needed to do. He was there for us whenever we asked, however he put it on us to “get a little better” every day.
Do I miss 5:30 a.m. workouts at Keith Klevin’s facility? No. Do I miss 7 a.m. Saturday putting practice? No. Was it tough to take missing qualifying in the Top 2 by one shot and not go on a team trip? No. Hitting hundreds of putts on the T-square with my eyes closed? No. Would I be the person I am today without the accountability and lessons I learned from Coach Knight? No.
I don’t play much golf these days, but every time I do play in a AJGA Junior Am or for business purposes, everybody always says, "Wow, C.J. you are a great putter." Per Coach Knight, we were always told to respond by tipping the cap and saying, "Thank you!"
I am so appreciative of the chance Coach Knight took on me and what he has built for generations of Rebels to come.
3. Following your collegiate career, you played professionally both in the U.S. and abroad. Talk about your experiences and how that period in your life has impacted where you are today.
After graduating from UNLV, I stayed amateur to play the USGA Amateur at Pinehurst that summer. My freshman roommate and best friend to this day, Andy Leadbetter, who was living in China, talked me into coming to out to Asia to play professionally.
Gaining status on the China Tour upon arrival, being a U.S. trailblazer for the One Asia Tour and then things leading into the Asian Tour and European Tour is an experience I will never forget. The backbone of Coach Knight and UNLV was knowing how to qualify. Going through this and the mentality that I played with as a professional allowed for my success as a professional.
At any point in your golf career, you have to be able to qualify, and that was how doors opened for me and how I treated every round I played. My highlights professionally were winning the 2010 Hong Kong PGA Championship, competing in multiple Australian Opens and PGAs, along with getting to play the Barclays Singapore Open.
4. In 2012, you co-founded and became the executive director for American College Development Solutions (ACDS). Share with us exactly what ACDS does and how your career path prepared you for this position.
In 2012, I actually had a great year going playing-wise and really felt like my maturity and experience as a player was starting to click. Unfortunately, I battled extremely serious health issues throughout the year. At PGA Tour Q School, I shot 66 in Round 1, and the issues that had been troubling flared up that night, and the next thing I knew multiple surgeries were scheduled and I was laid up for six months.
Obviously, when you are recovering, you start to think a lot. During this time and knowing the channel and exposure for Asian players wanting to play college golf didn’t exist, I felt if I could find a good partner that had an understanding of business and education dynamics, we could pair well in looking to prepare juniors for college golf. Using my knowledge of going through the college system as well as my golf network I built while I played, I felt we could make a difference and help.
Phil Tozer, co-founder of ACDS, was that business partner, and we have had a great partnership and vision since day one. We’ve built our success investing in infrastructure to support kids both domestically internationally providing the highest levels of exposure and listening to what college coaches have told us to do with our program.
Kids and college coaches are the biggest stakeholders in ACDS. Being an AJGA alum, and the opportunities I had thru the AJGA, made us as an organization want to get involved as a partner of the AJGA. I believe there is no better way to be exposed to college coaches than to play the best schedule possible.
I went through all of the same things as a kid that are still the case today — not being able to get into AJGA events or having to travel further than expected to gain a playing opportunity. At the end of the day, l played the AJGA for multiple years and ultimately built a very polished and deep tournament resume. These principles are the foundation of ACDS tournament scheduling program.
I feel confident to say that our knowledge of the AJGA PBE system and data analysis has led to our members accelerating the process and playing the best fit schedules for them at an early age and gaining the highest level of returns.
5. Preparing junior golfers from around the world to be "college golf ready" is an often-used term associated with ACDS. What exactly does this mean?
The way we view things is that players should be "college golf ready" at any point of time, especially relative to their graduation year.
As we are not a recruiting service, it’s our job to have kids prepared for college golf as early as 11 years old. Seeing what we see on a daily basis and commitments often made while kids are 12-15 years old, it’s our job to ensure those opportunities are captured and all things behind the scenes are in order.
6. ACDS is involved in supporting international junior golf events. How does this work with your overall strategy in developing future college players? Talk about the events you involved with overseas and the quality of players competing.
This goes back to my time playing in Asia and building great relationships with the most influential people in the golf business. Earlier this year upon retirement from his post of executive chairman of the Asian Tour, Mr. Kyi Hla Han and I connected regarding his vision to provide Asian players a more seamless path to the AJGA and onward to college.
Mr. Han was a visionary of professional golf in the Asian region building partnerships with the European Tour as well as the Asian Tour’s involvement with the WGC HSBC Champions event in Shanghai and PGA Tour CIMB Classic in Malaysia. ACDS's role with the junior tour in Asia is to bring the connection to college golf coaches and help channel these qualified players to AJGA events during the summer months.
The JGTA (Junior Golf Tour of Asia) is the sanctioning committee of junior golf tournaments in the Asia-Pacific region, awarding AJGA Performance Based Entry (PBE) Status to its participants. Participants earn AJGA PBE Stars, thus building their PBE Status, through their final ranking on the JGTA’s Junior Order of Merit.
This official designation by the AJGA is evidence of the JGTA’s commitment to ensure its partners uphold the mission, values, standards and principles of the AJGA, in addition to following the rules and policies of the AJGA and its PBE system. The AJGA expects the JGTA to strive to grow the game in Asia and to provide a safe environment for the participants and spectators at its events.
ACDS is proud to be involved in the capacity we are with the JGTA as it is the first time AJGA PBE is being offered in Asia and the first junior tour to encompass an Asia-wide approach having the top players playing on regular basis. An example of some the players who are JGTA members, the current Asian Amateur Champion (committed to USC) and other recent college commitments of players going to Yale, Oregon, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa State, NYU and Washington.
We feel the exposure of JGTA results being visible to college coaches will allow players to be identified earlier and give coaches a reference point of competitive levels that was currently not in place prior to the JGTA.
7. ACDS is the title sponsor of the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) Junior All-Star Series. Talk about the series and how the AJGA relationship works with your ACDS direction internationally and domestically.
It is always an honor to be affiliated with the AJGA, and to be a part of the fastest-growing area of the AJGA means a lot to ACDS. Our involvement with the Junior All-Star Series really stemmed from understanding Asian players needed more time to develop off the golf course, mainly involving English levels, test scores and NCAA eligibility.
Getting players going early and exposed to the correct information of the system is not generally the mentality in Asia. However, players coming over to play the Junior All-Star Series see that things do happen early, and being evaluated by some of the top college coaches who are attending events changes their mindsets to get the academics in order quickly.
For me, and respect to players both internationally and domestically, I always go back to the fact that the AJGA and NCAA rules process is the same no matter where you are from. Players need AJGA PBE to compete at the highest level of tournaments, coaches want the best fits for their team, and the NCAA requirements are mandatory.
It's been amazing to see our success of the work in Asia but in recent times the work we’ve been doing with USA based players taking advantage of our assets and resources has been equally impressive.
8. Finally, beginning with the 2017-18 school year, ACDS added the sponsorship of the AJGA’s Coaches Corner to its inventory in junior golf. Talk about this new opportunity and what it means to your junior golf clients around the world.
We are extremely thankful to be involved in the ACDS Coaches Corner. With the database already housing 7,000 AJGA members and now over 900 men’s and women’s college coaches, it goes back to what I mentioned earlier as the kids and coaches are the stakeholders in this process.
Anything ACDS can do to bridge the gap and connection between the two is what we’re going to do. I feel it is a great benefit to all coaches who are members of the GCAA and WGGA to have this access for free gets more coaches viewing AJGA member’s information, thus giving more kids a chance to play college golf.
From an ACDS program perspective, our members-first course of action is to work with our college golf consular to have a polished AJGA profile. Often times there are gaps in the profiles due to players being younger or living abroad, however it’s our focus to get these player’s needs addressed, ACDS as additional contact listed, outline a plan and get them playing them playing a top ranked schedule.
We believe there are no shortcuts thru junior golf development process and this is the system that has been in place for years. The ACDS Coaches Corner is an extremely important vehicle, and it has been a valuable asset in often being the first point of connection between coaches and players.
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