Fifteen-year-old Rivera shines on links for Falcons

Should one call Torrey Pines freshman golfer Jackson Rivera a prodigy? Let’s examine some of the evidence. He got his first golf lesson at age 4 and later played his first round of golf at Heartwell Park in Long Beach (the same course where Tiger Woods started), was in the Junior World Championships at San Diego’s Colina Park at age 6, won the U.S. Kids World Championship three years later—at storied Pinehurst, no less—and last year posted a seven-stroke victory at the Golfweek West Coast Junior Invitational at Mesa Country Club in Arizona.

Golfweek ranks him as the top player in the prep class of 2021 and, statistically at least, he’s the No. 1-ranked player on a tremendous Torrey Pines squad that currently has seven players among the top 25 in the CIF San Diego section. If all that’s not enough, there’s one more thing. Since his family recently moved from Los Alamitos to Rancho Santa Fe, he knew where he would be going to college (USC) before he knew he would be attending Torrey Pines High School. Rivera and the Trojans made a two-way verbal commitment in February of 2017

To make the picture even better, Rivera is about as normal as a Southern California teenager can be. He takes a regular slate of classes at Torrey Pines, you’d never single him out in a crowd as a big- time prep athlete and his personality comes across as intelligent, laid back and humble.

The 5-9, 140-pounder came into a unique environment at Torrey Pines this past fall. The Falcon golf squad, headed up by 10th-year head coach Chris Drake, is the defending CIF Open Division champion, has the entire 2017 starting roster returning for a program that has won eight State and 22 section titles in its 43-year history, and has put several players on the PGA Tour. That sounds like a daunting assignment, even for a proven commodity like Rivera, but Drake points out that in today’s junior golf world, it’s not all that tricky.

“These kids all know each other,” said Drake. “They play, practice and are in the same tournaments together and some have the same swing coaches. So they get along very well.

“Our players recognize his talent and recognize that he’s part of our team and we all share a common goal.”

For Rivera, it’s been a completely positive transition.

“High school golf has been so much fun,” said Rivera, with genuine enthusiasm. “It’s a whole new aspect—getting on the bus every day with your team, playing with one of your teammates against another team.

“You can ask your teammate for help and talk through everything. It’s friendly, but competitive. In junior golf events, you’re completely on your own, no teammates or parents out there to help. It’s much more competitive, everyone for themselves.”

When asked to assess his newest player’s strengths, Drake’s response is surprising but quick in coming. “His patience,” the veteran mentor says. “He waits for his opportunities but when they do arrive, he goes for it. He doesn’t force things like a lot of younger players will do—and he can putt like nobody you’ve seen.”

Another local links star, La Costa Canyon junior Kento Yamawaki, the reigning CIF individual champion and currently sitting atop the county rankings, one slot above Rivera, plays frequently with the Torrey Pines newcomer and is well-aware of his abilities.

“His accuracy and precision around the greens is really phenomenal,” says Yamawaki. “With his chipping, he has a variety of shots and can get up-and-down from just about anywhere. He’s really a clutch putter too—somebody who makes shots when it counts.

“He’s also really competitive but nice about it. He’s always fun to play with.”

The 15-year-old phenom sat down recently with this newspaper and talked about his game, some of the courses he’s played and what the future might look like.

Q—You played a variety of sports when you were younger, what has drawn you to golf as opposed to one of the other options?

RIVERA—I think it was kind of cool how creative you need to be and can be throughout all of it. There’s no one way to play the game and there are so many ways to do it. I always thought it was interesting that there were so many things I could do with the ball. For instance, in basketball you just shoot it straight and try to put it in the basket but with golf, if I wanted, I could aim 50 yards left and try to slice or fade it to where I wanted it to go. You’re also always faced with new situations.

It’s also a sport you can play your entire life and I do like the individual aspect of it. You don’t have to depend on anyone else—it’s all on you.

Q—What is the strength of your game and what is the toughest part of the game for you?

RIVERA—The short game—chipping and putting—is definitely my strength, it’s where I save myself. I can hit the ball a decent ways but not as far as some guys.

Honestly, nothing is really that tough but the part of my game that is not as good as the rest is ball striking. That’s the biggest thing now. The best guys in the world hit the ball so far. You have to be able to hit it long and straight. I used to think I could just hit it short and straight and be OK but I know that’s not going to work. So now, it’s about getting into the gym, working out. My mechanics have to be good and efficient—you need to be able to create speed easily.

Q—Do you have individual coaches that you work with?

RIVERA—I have a swing coach, Chris Mayson, who is at Maderas, and I have worked with Dave Stockton, Jr. on my short game but that’s about it.

Coach Drake at Torrey Pines works hard on the team phase of the game, keeping us positive and engaged. You could very easily say that some of our high school tournaments are not as important as junior golf events, when they really are, maybe even more because of the team aspect. All of us want to play college golf and that’s all team play. This is strong competition and gives us a good feel for how it’s going to be in college.

Q—How would you describe your style of play?

RIVERA—I play really aggressively. I like to hit a lot of drivers, go at pins a ton and don’t really like to play passively. It’s good to stay aggressive because you can always notch it down, play a little less aggressively, if the greens are super firm or the pin placements dictate. But if you have the mentality that you can go after everything, it will be there when you really need it.

Q—You had a number of high schools to choose from, what made you decide to attend Torrey Pines?

RIVERA—I was actually debating between Cathedral Catholic and Torrey Pines but really wanted the ISPE (Independent Study Physical Education) program that Torrey Pines offered. I’m able to go to school from 7:45 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. every day which is super helpful with golf and homework. Looking ahead to college, it gives me a lot of flexibility in taking courses and preparing for AP classes.

Q—Torrey Pines has a very strong golf squad. Is there a part of any of your teammates’ games that you wish you had?

RIVERA—I play with James Song a lot. Playing and working with him, I’ve learned a lot of little things about how he practices and how he works on certain things. He’s really meticulous about how he does things and I just like the way he goes about practice. He might mess around a little bit but when it’s time to work, he really works. He goes into every day knowing what he wants to get better at and what he’s trying to accomplish. There are a few specific little things I’ve taken away but the biggest thing is just the process of how he does it.

Q—What are your short and long-term goals as far as golf?

RIVERA—This year, winning the CIF section and state championships as a team and individually.

The ultimate goal would be able to play professional golf. Being able to play every day and doing that for a living would be unreal. But first I have to get through college—and high school.

Q—Speaking of college, what about USC, how did that happen?

RIVERA—There’s nothing signed because you can’t do that this early, but we’ve made verbal commitments. If I hold up my end of the offer by continuing to play well and keeping my grades up, I will get to go play for USC.

I worked through the process with my parents and everyone agrees that it’s hard to make a decision this big, this early, but when you look at things, it couldn’t really be any better. The golf program is fantastic, it’s a great academic institution and the whole alumni side of USC is amazing. I love sports and it’s a great overall athletic environment. Plus, I’ve been fortunate to travel quite a bit and been in so much weather that I know I don’t like cold at all. It’s also nice that I have a friend from junior golf who will be starting there a year before I do so I’ll know someone on the team coming in.

It’s really such an easy decision and takes some of the pressure off. It’s kind of weird that I knew I was going to USC before I knew I was going to Torrey Pines.

Q—What has been your most memorable golf moment?

RIVERA—It would have to be being able to go to the Scotty Cameron Putter Studio and work with Paul Vizanko. Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and a lot of the pros go there. It’s like a big lab where they get their putters and work on their putting strokes.

I’ve been fortunate enough to go there a few times and got one of the Circle T putters that a lot of the pros use. The best part was not getting the putter but the information Paul is giving you. We talk and go through my putting on video, check how things look and he gives suggestions. On the video, you can see every little detail—the way the ball rolls, the way your putter swings, how much your head and shoulders move. He’s like a putting guru passing along tips and ideas from the top tour pros to the next generation of players. It’s been an amazing experience.

Q—Are there any professional golfers you particularly admire?

RIVERA—Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott. Rickie Fowler is hard not to like. I’ve met him and he’s really a nice guy, took a picture with me when he didn’t need to. He’s super laid back and very relatable. You talk with him and feel like “if he can do it, I can do it too.”

As far as Adam Scott, I have a friend who loved Adam Scott and he kind of brainwashed me into liking him. Now, I can’t stop. He does have a great swing.

Q—What is your favorite course in San Diego?

RIVERA—Del Mar Country Club. It’s really unreal. You can go out in a foursome or fivesome and play super fast. The course design is great and it has a very laid back environment. It’s a special place.

Q—What’s the toughest course you’ve played?

RIVERA—Pine Valley (New Jersey). You just can’t get a break there. It has the highest slope rating a course can have. You play a super hard hole and it seems the next one is always even harder.

Q—You seem pretty mellow off the course, do you ever get emotional when you’re playing?

RIVERA—I stay pretty calm the whole time I’m playing, whether I’m six-under or seven-over. I never get too upset or at least I don’t show it. It’s not something I really have to consciously think about, just kind of the way I am.

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