For one of the nation's hottest college golf prospects, Michelle Grilli is about to embark on the course less traveled.
The Pikesville senior just completed her most successful summer tour, winning an American Junior Golf Association tournament, forcing another to a playoff and finishing second and third in two others. She reached the round of 16 at the U.S. Golf Association Girls' Junior Championship and qualified for the USGA Women's Amateur Championship, missing the cut by a stroke.
After that, Grilli's stock as a college prospect skyrocketed.
Ranked 64th nationally on the Golfweek-Titleist performance index, she stands 22nd in the recruiting Class of 2006. When Grilli returned home in August, about 35 e-mail messages from college coaches awaited her.
Her success and the ensuing attention certainly turned the 17-year-old's head, but it did not change her plans.
"Usually most golfers on my level focus on playing golf in college and go to the best team possible that they can go to on a full ride," Grilli said. "I'm taking a little different route, because I still focus on my academics more than my golf, so it's important to me to go to the best academic school possible and still play golf."
As good as she is on the golf course, Grilli excels even more in the classroom. She received word last week that she is one of only 10 girls in the nation named to the American Junior Golf Association's HP Scholastic Junior All-America Team.
She carries a 4.0 grade point average and has never gotten less than an A in high school. Weighted, her GPA jumps to 5.33. She's ranked 10th in her class and scored 2,190 out of 2,400 on the SAT.
Grilli tackles six Advanced Placement classes - calculus 3, physics, statistics, economics, Spanish literature and English.
A lot of college golf programs are interested in her, but she's focusing on three - Harvard, Princeton and Virginia. She said she's keeping her options open, but she is drawn to top-notch academic programs such as the Ivy League schools rather than schools with big-time golf programs.
Her dedication to academics over the lure of big-time college golf came naturally. Her parents instilled that lesson early in Grilli and her brother, Sam, 23, who played a couple years of golf at Cornell.
"I've always wanted her to understand that she could find herself hurt one day or physically in a situation where she couldn't play golf, and what is she going to do then? She's got to get an education," said her father, Richard Grilli.
With a passion for golf and no clear career path, how does she maintain that perspective?
"I don't necessarily know what I want to do, but I have a lot of interests. Either way a good academic education will help me no matter what I do," said Grilli, who is leaning toward a career in math or business.
Still, she admits her success over the summer tempted her to consider for a moment what it might be like to play at a big-time golf school, such as 2005 NCAA champion Duke, which has recruited her. Virginia also has a pretty competitive program, finishing 13th in the NCAA finals last May.
Going to a program such as Duke could be a straighter path to the LPGA tour.
"It's not that I don't want to play [on tour], but I'm not one of those girls who's like, `That's my goal and that's all I want to do.' "
This past summer, however, she did almost nothing but play golf. She left for a Florida tournament on the last day of class in June and played her last match on Aug. 19, just 10 days before school started.
It didn't take long to get her first win on the AJGA circuit, the premier junior tour in the country. On July 8, she won the Chicago Junior Open by nine strokes. She shot 67 in the final round.
"It's my lowest score ever, so it was awesome," she said. "I don't think I've ever been happier."
Grilli's teacher, Ted Sheftic, said she is fundamentally sound, mentally tough and able to scrap out a good score on a bad day, but at the Chicago tournament, every part of her game came together.
"I had been hitting the ball pretty well for the past two weeks before that and then, that week, you could tell that I was just on," she said. "I was hitting most of my iron shots close to the pin and hitting every fairway and it almost came naturally. It was like, perfect."
With that victory, Grilli's confidence hit an all-time high.
"It kind of opened my eyes a little bit," Grilli said, "because I didn't realize how possible it was to get a win. When I was younger, I thought I would go through all my summers without winning one of these. They're pretty competitive. There's always one girl who's really good in the field. It definitely helped me with confidence. I went into every other tournament after that knowing that I could do a lot better than I used to think I could."