Shooting for Tiger

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.

Since the start of competitive junior golf, the entrance age has continued to drop. The AJGA, founded in 1979, originally catered to 16-18-year-olds. A few years into its existence it began accepting 15-year-olds, then 14-year-olds, then 13-year-olds, and after a long battle, 12-year-olds. When Michelle Wie’s parents insisted that she be able to play as an 11-year-old in 2000, executive director Stephen Hamblin drew the line. Wie went on to skip junior competitions altogether, playing adult tournaments only. By the time she was 18, she was damaged physically and mentally. Her experience convinced Hamblin of the necessity of age limits. “You just can’t skip the stages of development,” he explains.

For the most part, teen golfers are a close-cropped, clean-cut group. Like adults at an upscale golf resort, they dress in bright polo shirts and well-pressed khaki pants or shorts. Some listen to their iPods before they play to calm their nerves. Most spend their free time discussing the world they know — how they played that day or their hopes for the next round — but keep their feelings bottled up. As these prodigies perfect their games, they must avoid the traditional teenage temptations. The freedom of a driver’s license, flirtations with members of the opposite sex and the desire for new experiences all threaten to interfere with a teenage golfer’s game. One mom calls it the “16-year-old hump — girls, grades and golf.” Another adds a fourth G: physical growth, a factor that threatens to easily unhinge a golf swing.

Parents of young golfers also confront an inordinate amount of pressure. They pour enormous amounts of time, money and psychic energy into raising exceptional children. Although most sports provide opportunities for parent–child bonding, golf raises the bar of expectation. Kids pick up football, baseball and soccer on their own by playing with neighbors in the backyard. With golf, someone must guide them, drive them to the course and accompany them to tournaments.

Every player requires a different degree of parental pushing and encouragement. Many of the most controlling fathers and mothers believe they must exert pressure on their kids to see desired results, even though psychologists warn that their children often turn their hobbies into anxiety-producing obsessions. “You have to challenge them,” insists Petr Korda, a former Czech tennis star whose 14-year-old daughter Jessica is competing at the Mirasol tournament. “Kids get quickly satisfied. You have to show them that it’s necessary to be hungry, not to give up.”

Many solicitous parents devote themselves full time to developing their children’s golf talent. On the practice range and on the course, fathers and mothers offer children comments about their performance, often as though they were part of a team.

“We’re hitting it left,” they might say. “We’re missing those putts. We’re scoring badly.”

Many golfers who manage to avoid teenage pitfalls still end up rebelling against overbearing parents. “I can think of cases where parents drove them away from the game,” established professional Stewart Cink admits. “After college, the kids have had enough. There are even kids who get out here on the pro tour with their parents and eventually somebody has to step in and say, ‘Dad, you are over here and the kid is over here.’ This happens at a different age for everybody. One thing is common: It’s always an outside party, a swing coach, a trainer, a caddie, who sees what is going on and steps in and says, ‘I know he is your son, but this isn’t working out.’”

At all AJGA events, alarm bells ring early. Tournament organizers schedule dawn start times to free up the course for country club members in the afternoons and often to avoid extreme summer heat. Staff members wake up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare. Fifty summer interns, mostly college students, supplement 55 full-time employees. Seven interns and six full-timers are working Mirasol, drilling holes at each green, placing coolers of cold drinks next to the tee boxes, building scoring tents and putting garbage bags in bins.

Within minutes of opening at 6 a.m., Mirasol’s practice range is filled. Tim Lovelady, a court stenographer from Alabama who is accompanying his son Tom for a 7:30 tee time, worries about the seriousness of the entire junior golf process.

During these tournaments, the kids don’t stroll carefree along the fairways, and few smile.

“They don’t laugh and they don’t chit chat,” Lovelady observes. “They just play.”

The seriousness extends to the tournament officials, who monitor progress along the golf course, making sure they keep up with the quick pace required by play policy. The AJGA has declared war on six-hour rounds of golf. It believes four and a half hours suffice to complete 18 holes.

“You know the joke from the Seinfeld show about the Soup Nazis?” Lovelady asks me, a smile spreading across his face. “Well, these guys are the Clock Nazis!”

Read more from this series:

Young Koreans storm the greens

Advanced Placement, Golf

Excerpted from "Shooting for Tiger: How Golf's Obsessed New Generation is Transforming a Country Club Sport," publishing this month from PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.