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Shooting for Tiger

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

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.”