On Monday night I attended a screening in Toronto of the new film The Short Game, an often touching and insightful look at the world of junior – very junior – golf. The film, which was released Sept. 20th, zeroes in on five boys and three girls, seven years old, as they compete in the 2012 U.S. Kids Golf World Championship . The annual tournament occurs in Pinehurst, N.C.
The film, which Josh Greenbaum directed, does a first-rate job of making the viewer care about the kids, while inviting questions about the nature of intense competition for children. How will Jed Dy fare? He’s identified as an autistic youngster, and he is totally wrapped up in his game. There’s an austere quality to Dy, as he wears a Ben Hogan cap and swings powerfully and efficiently, his intent solely on making a perfect swing and sending the ball where he wants it to go.
How, too, will Amari Avery do? She calls herself “Tigress” after her hero Tiger Woods. She and Tiger share the same birthday, and she appears on her way to the championship. But Amari’s game falls apart, and she too falls apart as her score escalates. She reacts emotionally to missed shots and putts. So does her father, her caddy, who doesn’t do his daughter any good by showing how he feels while she is still on the course competing. It’s difficult to watch the two of them as they lose their grip. They identify solely with how Amari is playing. That’s never a good thing for any golfer, never mind a child.
While watching Amari and her father, my mind flashed to a scene I came across in the parking lot at the Augusta National Golf Club during the 2000 Masters. A golfer who had qualified for the Masters by winning a national championship was putting his clubs away in his car after a round. He’d not played well. His father was beside him, and criticizing him in a loud, harsh voice for missing some short putts during the round. This golfer had played his first tournament when he was 10, and had been under a spotlight since. Now he was at the Masters, the pinnacle of the game. But all that mattered was his score.
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In the film, and the tournament, the score is also all that matters. The situation softens and returns to a more sober environment when the tournament ends and the golfers are awarded – or not awarded – trophies. One youngster and his parents are beside themselves with joy because he is deemed the most improved player. At this moment I felt that, yes, the film is about kids as much as it is about golf and competitiveness. The tournament, after all, is called the U.S. Kids World Championship, not the U.S. Junior Championship. These are kids. But are they relinquishing their childhoods in the service of honing their swings and scoring abilities and, perhaps one day, winning a golf scholarship to a U.S. college?
Allan Kournikova, the youngster who goes on to win the overall championship, is one of the stars in the film. (Anna, his sister, was a brilliant tennis player who never fulfilled her immense promise; she doesn’t appear in the film). Allan speaks about nutrition, and he points out how much he loves to win – he has 102 trophies at his home in Palm Beach. He likes nothing more than hitting golf balls. His coach caddies for him while his mother Alla watches from the sidelines. He says he’s not losing his childhood. He loves his childhood, golfing his way along to wherever his talent takes him.
The game is a magnet for Allan. Why should he be denied? Why should a kid who loves to hit golf balls and whose talent has taken him to a big tournament not be allowed to continue doing so? Will there be costs down the road to his and the other kids’ engagement with a sport at a tender age? Are their parents doing the right thing in caddying for them and, sometimes, getting so involved in their play? At one point a father offers so much advice for his child’s swing that the mind reels.
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The film, meanwhile, builds tension with cuts away from the final putts players are making, the putts that will determine how they finished. Did that putt drop? We soon learn the results, but for the moment, we are in suspense. For me, though, there was a jarring moment when Allan and Justin Sui, a youngster from Lake Orion, Mich., were playing together in the final and third round of the tournament. Allan at a critical moment decides to try to drive a green. He has to carry a dangerous bunker, and decides to go for it. His drive finishes about eight feet short of the hole.
Justin then tries to drive the green as well. But his drive goes through the green. He’ll have to chip from there. Justin is away, and so he should play his second before Allan would try to make his eagle putt. But in the film Allan plays before Justin – the sequence is off. He makes his eagle putt. Justin then plays, and he chips in for his eagle. Matching eagles, but the order of play, as presented, wasn’t right.
That caveat aside, the rest of the film did feel right. It’s a revealing window into a world that is getting only more ferociously competitive. Allan, by the way, won the U.S. Kids European Championship last May at the Longniddry Golf Club in Gullane, Scotland. The course is just down the road from the Muirfield Golf Club, where Phil Mickelson won the Open Championship last July.
Who knows, maybe we’ll see Allan in the Open the next time it’s played at Muirfield, most likely in about 10 years. Maybe. Will the kid who started golf when he was 18 months old become a champion? The odds are long, but The Short Game shows that he, and his fellow kid golfers, have a lot of game.
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I wonder if Greenbaum will continue to follow the youngsters. How about a golf version of director Michael Apted’s Seven Up? The English director started following 14 British seven-year-olds in 1964. He’s done a film about them every seven years since, making for a look at children who are now middle-aged. What happened to the kids who were seven in 1964? Apted’s 56 Up aired on British television last year and was shown on U.S. television last January. Here’s Rebecca Mead’s review from The New Yorker.
The Short Game drew me in and made me wonder what will happen to the kids who were seven in 2012. Thanks to Greenbaum’s sensitive film, I want to keep following them, and to find out.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein