Veteran head coach Scott Vandegrift (left) shares some wisdom with freshman Jake Speers ahead of the 2023 PSAC Championship. Photo courtesy of Millersville Athletics
3,257 miles. That is how far Jake Speers had to travel from Portstewart, Ireland in order to make his dreams a reality. Collegiate golf has been on his mind since he was about thirteen years old. After a successful young soccer career, going as far as to even representing his homeland in a national tournament in Spain, Speers decided it was the game of golf in which he would devote most of his time and energy.
“Since I started, I have always wanted to come to the USA and play collegiate golf. Over here you can take your game to the next level as it’s highly competitive,” said Speers.
Speers had an extremely successful youth career playing golf in Ireland, winning the Ulster Series Winter Championship, and was a runner-up in the Club Championship and Senior Scratch Cup. Speers also played in tournaments all over Ireland, representing Ulster, where he would serve as the youngest member of both the junior and senior cup teams. But when head coach Scott Vandegrift began recruiting him to Millersville University, thousands of miles from Portstewart, Speers understood that he was one step closer to fulfilling his dream of playing collegiate golf in the States.
“I got in touch with coach Vandegrift and he made recruitment very easy. He’s a great coach and someone I got along with very well,” said Speers.
Golf is an uber-competitive scene in the United States, with over 16,000 courses across the 50 states. This is over five times as many courses as the next largest country which is Japan with about 3,000. This makes collegiate golf an attractive option for international golfers looking to take the next step in their career. Professionals such as John Rahm, Jonas Blixt, and Thomas Pieters, as well as many others, have come stateside to play golf, taking a similar path as Speers.
However, it is not an easy feat for athletes to just up and leave the life they have built in their homeland. Due to the rigorous schedule collegiate athletes face between practices, matches, and tournaments as well as a full class load, Speers and other athletes have their hands full during the semester. Oftentimes, Speers is able to visit family in Ireland only once or twice throughout the school year. Although Speers understands that this is all part of the larger plan, his chance to play collegiate golf and take his game to the next level.
“It was scary, but I knew it was something that I had always wanted to do,” said Speers when asked about the shift from Ireland to the United States. “It has been a huge change to get used to, but I have loved the experience. It has been hard being away from family but I’m looking forward to seeing them at Christmas!”
Speers, a freshman, has made his impact felt right away for the Marauders, posting three top-ten finishes in just seven events, even fighting through a hand injury to help deliver Millersville the 2023 PSAC championship. After the first day of play, Speers was having trouble gripping the golf club. When Speers struck the ball on the fourteenth hole, the club hit a tree root, shooting intense pain up his wrist and arm.
“I played the last four holes with no feeling in my wrist and tried to put the best score I could in for the team,” said Speers.
Speers spent the entire night Saturday rehabbing the injured hand, doing his best to play on Sunday and finish the tournament with his team. After convincing coach Vandegrift he was ready to go, Speers resumed play on Sunday, leading the Millersville team coming down the home stretch of the tournament. After Speers sank his birdie putt on hole fifteen, the tournament was all but locked up for the Marauders.
“I can’t say enough about the one young man (Speers) who couldn’t even play yesterday because of a hurt hand, and he led the charge today,” said veteran head coach Vandegrift.
Speers has been a huge part in the reshaping of Millersville golf, helping to take what was once a struggling team into one of the most powerful teams in the entire PSAC conference. With Speers just about to wrap up his freshman year, Vandegrift will be able to build with his young core on what has been an extremely successful 2023 campaign.