Golf prodigy: Turlock High sophomore inspires with talent and passion

Ron Agostini

TURLOCK – Clark Van Gaalen’s idea of a perfect day is the summer solstice.

It’s the longest sunlit day of the year, which means only one thing to Van Gaalen – the optimum day for golf.

Last year on the June morning of the solstice, he awoke before dawn, packed a lunch and arrived at Turlock Golf and Country Club before sunrise. And then he played. And played. And played. And didn’t depart until dusk.

“I think I got about four rounds in,” Van Gaalen remembered.

‘That’s 72 holes, the duration of a four-day PGA Tour event, in one day. This just in: Van Gaalen is hooked on golf.

It’s one healthy addiction, in fact, and it’s made him one of the most conspicuous young talents the area has seen in several years. Van Gaalen, a Turlock High sophomore, already has compiled a record to be envied.

But the best club in his bag is his passion. Simply, he can’t get enough of the royal and ancient game. He’s built 2-iron slim, dresses like someone teeing off against Jordan Spieth, and talks like a smitten 16-year-old about his first love.

“Golf for me is something I want to strive to be the best at,” he said. “I hope I’m the best at it someday.”

Webster describes “prodigy” as “a highly talented child or youth.” When Van Gaalen grips a 5-iron, he qualifies. The family photo album includes a portrait of him, putter in hand, not long after he first stumbled to his feet.

Van Gaalen rolled in his first putts at age 2 and, when he was 8, told his parents Wayne and Amethyst that he wanted to play golf in college. He beat his dad for the first time at age 11 and out-drove him for the first time last year with one of his routine 300-yard rips.

His resume, with the ink still not dried, is silly good:

--He was ranked an unofficial 53rd last year among the nation’s top juniors by Golfweek (he accrued enough tournament points but didn’t play in enough tournaments to make it official).

--He’s twice won the US Kids Teen World Championship and, last year, clinched it with a gaudy 69 from the tips at the famed Pinehurst No.2 in North Carolina.

--He’s twice been named the Player of the Year by the Junior Golf Association of Northern California and has won 19 overall titles since 2014.

Veteran area pro Shane Balfour, the JGANC executive director the last 12 years, has seen the elite graduate from his circuit over the years: Modesto native Bryson DeChambeau, Kevin Chappell, Maverick McNealy, Joseph Bramlett, Austin Smotherman, Kurt Kitayama, John Catlin and Justin Suh among others.

Balfour believes Van Gaalen is every bit as good as anyone on that list when they were 16.

“Clark is a whole other animal,” Balfour praised. “He has a special ingredient and wins in a gracious way. He’s not a flash in the pan. There are no guarantees, but he has all the bells and whistles to go far in this game."

Van Gaalen’s parants both were athletes, Amethyst at Central Catholic and Wayne at Turlock Christian. They’re been careful to provide a balance in the lives of their children Savannah (14), Carter (12) and Clark.

That said, golf has become a major foundation. The Turlock club has developed many fine junior players over the years, but Clark clearly has risen to another level.

In fact, Van Gaalen’s constant presence and enthusiasm reminds oldtimers of another prodigy from a half-century ago. Joey Rassett, also raised a long tee shot from the TCC clubhouse, was known at the club as “Little Jody.” But he blossomed into a Turlock High star, an All-American at Oral Roberts, a Walker Cup hero and a player who once led the U.S. Open after 36 holes.

“Joey was more of a power player. Clark is tall (6-foot2) and his tempo is outrageously good,” said longtime Turlock CC member Jay Berry. “You can never say anyone is a shoo-in, but there is a hint (of greatness) in Clark.”

When Wayne Van Gaalen asked Balfour for advice two years about how to proceed with Clark – What teaching pro should he see? Should he enroll at a golf academy? – Balfour essentially told him this: Leave him alone. Go slowly. Let him absorb it all.

Van Gaalen maximizes his power with a long and fluid swing. His greatest asset, however, is his embrace of all of golf’s challenges – how to recover from a bad shot or a bad day, how to react to a tough break, how to accept both the favorable and the often harsh “rub of the green.”

He beats it all with raw passion. When he was 9, he played 108 holes in two days in a fund-raiser so his friend, a diabetic, could purchase a service dog. Two months ago during a practice round at Pasatiempo,  he rocketed a 4-iron through driving rain into the cup for an ace at the 196-yard fifth. The weather forced his group into the clubhouse moments later.

Van Gaalen’s prodigious length shortens the test at Turlock CC. Last year, Grant Horvat – a collegiate player and golf influencer from Florida who signed last month with Mizuno – traveled the country in search of up-and-coming players in his “Challenge Accepted” series. Van Gaalen stepped up for a nine-hole match and beat him with an almost effortless 34 over Turlock’s back nine (the match can be found online).

Another one of his strengths is family. Savannah completed a solid freshman season last fall at Turlock and Carter already has scored a hole-in-one. As for Clark, he is on schedule.

As a freshman, Van Gaalen was named the Central California Athletic League’s MVP (the pandemic scrapped the postseason). This spring, he has not ventured above par in any match and has shot four 68s and three 69s.

The Turlock team, coached by Jason Boswell, is chasing its 16thleague title in 18 years. Its season will be defined over a series of upcoming Mondays: The CCALs at Turlock on May 2, The Sac-Joaquin Section Division II Championship on May 9 at Swenson Park in Stockton and the Section Masters at Elkhorn in Stockton on May 16. The top teams will advance to the NorCals at Berkeley CC on May 23 and the CIF State Championship at San Gabriel CC on June 1.

Turlock’s chances hinge largely on Van Gaalen, who can soon burnish his credentials. He understands the game is fickle and often betrays the most gifted. That awareness is a plus. He looks forward to an exciting summer.

“I love playing golf. It means the world to me,” said the young man who just passed his driver’s test. “It’s the only sport I think that I will truly love because…it’s the only sport on the planet that you can play your entire life.”

Or all day.