Andrew Gai was just 18 months old when he saw a plastic golf club lying around the house. He picked it up -- and has not put one down since.

His mother, Mary Palmieri Gai, created "golf courses" inside her home, using paper cups as holes. "I traced out where to put his feet," she recalls. "There he was, in his onesies, hitting balls into cups."

Andrew was still in diapers when the Golf Training Center opened in Norwalk. Despite his attire, "they loved his swing," Mary says. (His father had cut some women's clubs down.) Andrew further impressed the pros by sinking a 35-foot putt.

He took a few lessons from the legendary Jerry Courville. But Andrew was largely self- taught. When he was 7 he began competing, through the Metropolitan PGA program.

"He wasn't concerned about winning," Mary notes. "He just wanted to perfect his game." His first victories came years later -- in eighth grade -- when he had his technique down pat.

Andrew played whenever, and wherever, he could. Mary "facilitated" his development, she says. "I didn't push him," she makes clear. "It all came from him."

But through the golf tournament circuit, she met parents with clear agendas. By the age of 8 or 9, Andrew was playing against young golfers whose parents were dreaming of college scholarships.

Andrew was good enough for one too. But the process, Mary says, was "grueling."

She designed a website for him: AndrewGaiGolf.com. It features news of his tournament victories; a list of awards and titles; news clippings; information about upcoming tourneys, even a video of his swing.

At the same time, he was narrowing down his options. Northern schools were out; the weather is not good enough to allow year-round play.

Colleges in Virginia and North Carolina seemed best -- nice weather, yet not too far from home.

Mary joined a website that provides contact information for college coaches.

While she was shepherding him through the college process, he kept playing -- and winning. Andrew was 2009 Met PGA Player of the Year. He won their tournament with a 67, matching the record at the 100-year-old Ardsley Golf Course.

Last winter, as a Staples junior Andrew realized that to bring his game to the next level, he'd have to make a major move -- literally. Mary's husband took three months off from work, to move with Andrew and his younger brother Stephen to Hilton Head, S.C. Mary commuted back and forth to her real estate job here.

The boys took courses through K12 Online International Academy. "It's not for the faint of heart," their mother says.

Forgoing his junior year on the Staples team -- he had been All-State as early as freshman year -- Andrew golfed every day. He won high-level tournaments. College coaches liked what they saw -- and were attracted to his very competitive nature.

The Gais visited many schools. They interviewed with plenty of coaches.

They learned the Byzantine rules of NCAA recruiting. (One example: Potential athletes can contact coaches -- but the coaches can't call athletes.)

One college coach dismissed Andrew as "not our material." Once he saw him play, though, he changed his mind -- claiming that the golfer was, in fact, "our material."

Timing is very important. There are narrow windows regarding contacts, applications and commitments.

Several coaches, Mary says, are "biased against northern players. They don't want to take a chance on them." Andrew's decision to play against southern players, she says, was very important.

A fortuitous meeting with the Campbell University coach opened the door for Andrew at that North Carolina school. Last week, Andrew signed a letter of intent to become a Camel.

The college process "takes a lot of work for everyone involved," Mary says.

"Golf isn't like basketball or football, where the money flows," she adds. "Those are industries. Golf is more like a sport."

Does she have any advice for parents of high school athletes? "Stay on top of things," Mary says. "Be your kid's advocate. You have to devote time to it. And you have to know that everything is very web-based now."

However, she concludes, "Andrew led me. Everything I did, I did at his suggestion. It's nice to see he's getting the reward for all his hard work."

Dan Woog is a Westport writer. Read more from him during the week at www.westport-news.com. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.com; his e-mail is dwoog@optonline.net