With talent, unique approach, Rivers Academy dominates high school golf

David Ford of Peachtree Corners tees off at the 2020 Georgia Amateur Championship. He signed to play golf at North Carolina.
David Ford of Peachtree Corners tees off at the 2020 Georgia Amateur Championship. He signed to play golf at North Carolina.

Credit: Kate Awtrey

Credit: Kate Awtrey

GISA school’s format tailor-made for schedule of golfers

When David Ford was 14, he decided to pursue the world’s No. 1 golf ranking. A few short years later in November 2020, he won the Rolex Tournament of Champions — part of a dominant stretch of tournament play — which catapulted him to No. 1 in the American Junior Golf Association rankings.

In addition to his individual success, Ford and his twin brother, Maxwell, play for Rivers Academy, a grade 5-through-12 private school of 300 students in Alpharetta that competes in the GISA. David signed a letter of intent to play at North Carolina, and Maxwell, who is ranked No. 20 in the AJGA rankings, signed with Georgia. Together, they’re two of the founding golfers for the program that began in 2018 and has swelled to 17 players.

Rivers Academy utilizes a hybrid model of home- and private-schooling for actors, equestrians, swimmers, tennis players and golfers (among other activities), although its only athletic programs are golf, cross country, swimming at Tennis.

According to the school’s website, tuition for the 2020-21 school year is $10,550 per year, depending upon the number of students a family enrolls.

The Ford brothers and their teammates are drawn to Rivers because of its unique format that’s essentially tailor-made for a golfer’s schedule. Rivers’ class hours run Tuesday through Thursday, from 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., which gives the team Friday through Monday to participate in golf tournaments and play after school.

Basically, all the time gaps between class go toward golfing, David Ford said. On school days, he’ll play from 1:15 p.m. until dark, then play in tournaments every weekend.

“That’s my goal,” he said. “That’s what gives me the satisfaction that I’m working on my craft to the best of my abilities.”

In addition to an accommodating schedule, Rivers players work with Charlie Anderson, who took over the program in 2020 after Patrick Ford, father of the Ford brothers, helped found it with other parents. Anderson is president of the Georgia State Golf Association and a former co-chairman and president of the Atlanta Athletic Club.

Anderson, who is not a teacher or employee at Rivers, said he coaches the team for fun.

“I’m the guy who brings in the trophies that the kids won,” he said.

Anderson said the challenge has been managing the lineup at tournaments to ensure all players are contributing.

“I’m a competitor myself,” he said. “I want them to win, and I want everyone to participate and have a good time. I’m not going to be a Bear Bryant about it because I want everyone to participate — even if it costs us the tournament.

“But so far, we’re undefeated.”

The last time the GISA held a state golf championship, in 2019, Rivers won by 44 strokes. But it’s not just GISA competition they’re dominating. While competing against some of the top teams in the GHSA this season, they’ve won all eight tournaments they’ve played, including the Larry Nelson Invitational, North Gwinnett Invitational, the Milton Georgia Cup and GSGA High School Invitational.

Maxwell Ford of Peachtree Corners tees off at the 2020 Georgia Amateur Championship. Ford signed with the University of Georgia.
Maxwell Ford of Peachtree Corners tees off at the 2020 Georgia Amateur Championship. Ford signed with the University of Georgia.

Credit: Kate Awtrey

Credit: Kate Awtrey

Leading the way has been Maxwell Ford, because David has missed most of the season with a back injury.

“This has probably been my favorite high-school season because I’m carrying the load,” said Maxwell, who also acknowledged the strong play of his teammates.

Aside from the Ford brothers, Rivers has two others ranked in the AJGA’s top 100. Senior Will Morlan is No. 29 and sophomore Ava Merrill, the team’s only female golfer, is ranked No. 52 in the AJGA’s girls national rankings.

If the competition isn’t up to Rivers’ level, the players still make sure to give each other a stiff challenge.

“We’re playing to beat each other,” David Ford said. “We’ve known each other so long. We’ve been playing each other every day for the last six years, and it becomes a pride thing. I want to beat them as much as they want to beat me, and it’s a good team atmosphere.”

With Rivers undefeated, and with only three tournaments remaining in the regular season before the GISA championships April 26, opportunities to dominate the competition are dwindling. Maybe that’s a good thing because there’s a concern among some affiliated with the program that Rivers — because of a perceived advantage due to the schools’ format — won’t be invited to compete in future high school events.

Ford believes not inviting Rivers to compete would be a mistake.

“My brain doesn’t process things like, ‘They’re better than me, so get them out of here,’” he said. “If we’ve got a great team, and we have some younger players who are going to make us great for a while, then why wouldn’t you want us there? If I was on those teams, I’d tell my players to get better, and I’d do the same.”

Correction, 04/12/2021: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed Rivers’ tuition, and grades and sports offered.

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