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Shooting for Tiger

Excerpts from a new book looking at how a new generation is transforming golf.

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida — Well before the sun rises, golfers begin arriving at the Country Club at Mirasol, a luxury housing development.

Players loosen their wrists by tapping balls on the putting green. They move onto the practice range, pulling open-faced clubs called wedges out of their bags and taking half swings to strike short shots that rise helicopter-fashion almost vertically and fall back to the ground a few yards away. Like pianists exercising their fingers, they move down the scale of irons — nine, eight, seven, six, five and four — lengthening their swings and making the ball fly a few extra yards with each respective club. They take bulb-shaped, steel- or titanium-headed “woods” and lengthen their swings into wide, graceful arcs that propel balls far off into the horizon. Although play begins at 7:30 a.m., these serious golfers practice for two hours before teeing off.

Mirasol long served as a stern test for the world’s top pros at the annual Professional Golf Association’s (PGA) Honda Classic. But this particular week Mirasol is opening its exclusive greens not to adult pros but to 84 of the world’s top-ranked golfers between the ages of 12 and 18.

The event launches the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) summer season, a pressure-packed few months in which fairway dreams are stirred and fuelled. Some young golfers hope to shoot well enough to be named an AJGA All-American. Others are eager to finish high enough in the top events to score a golf scholarship to college. Many aim to become professional golfers, maybe even reaching the highest heights and winning the Masters or the United States Open. But few boys jump from the junior to the men’s professional tour, and only one or two girls succeed in doing so each year.

Adult professionals who play four weeks of competitive golf in a row complain about the mental and physical toll of travel and tournaments. Yet many top-ranked juniors will compete for seven straight weeks in June and July because the vast majority of the elite golf tournaments are packed into the summer vacation.

A number of past AJGA Players of the Year have gone on to make lasting marks in the sport, starting with two-time winner Tiger Woods, three-time champion Phil Mickelson, and on the woman’s tour, professional superstars Paula Creamer and Morgan Pressel. As Ivan Lendl, the father of three teenagers who are avid junior golfers, and a former professional tennis player with eight Grand Slam tennis titles and millions of dollars in prize money, describes it, “The AJGA runs the Rolls-Royce of junior golf tournaments.”

Both the number of elite teen golf tournaments and the number of contestants has increased at a steady clip over the past two decades. At the 2007 Mirasol event, 82 young players competed from all over the world, from as far away as Troy, Michigan; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Hausen, Switzerland.

Most golf prodigies have played the game since they were toddlers. By the time they become teens, almost all have quit other organized athletic activities. Many are home-schooled, working on their computers early in the morning so they are free for a full afternoon of practice. Others enroll at full-time golf academies, where they attend classes in the morning and hit the fairways after lunch. But for all of these young players, golf is the lens through which they view the world.