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Golf ’s Top-10

PRODIGIES Mak Lok-lin, HK Golfer's roving correspondent, reflects on his credentials as a wunderkind and profiles the players - both past and present - that did amazing things at an incredibly young age

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s we watch our local junior golfers performing so well, it’s tempting to think of them as “prodigies” and imagine a glory filled future for them all. However, the prodigy who becomes a successful adult is a very rare breed indeed. Surprisingly (at least to my way of thinking) the term itself has nothing to do with Calvinists or big beat bands. Instead it comes from the Latin prodigium, meaning omen or portent, a harbinger of change. It can also mean something that violates the natural order. It tends to be used to describe precocious talent in the very young, more formally “a child, typically younger than 15-years-old, who is performing at the level of a highly trained adult in a very demanding field of endeavor” – and every year we hear of numerous supposed examples from all walks of life. However, when one looks at the startling achievements of, say, Mozart or Picasso as children, it’s clear the term is somewhat overused, although Hong Kong’s own March Tian Boedihardjo probably qualified when, in 2007, he became the SAR’s youngest university student at the age of nine. Given the “adult level” performance criteria, sports and especially contact sports tend not to have many prodigies. Nevertheless, golf seems to be particularly “blessed” with supposed wunderkinder. The internet is groaning under the weight of videos showing kids with great swings, which may make them better than their peers, but which hardly qualifies them as true prodigies. As a self-proclaimed borderline golfing prodigy myself (perhaps failing on the talent and age criteria, but undoubtedly violating the natural order), I went looking for past and current examples. From the innumerable claimants, I found what I believe to be ten of my fellow early achievers and gave each a Prodigy Rating (PR):

1

Tiger Woods

Ever since a two-year-old Tiger appeared on the Mike Douglas Show (with Bob Hope as a fellow guest), there have been innumerable examples of similar shows where “the next Tiger Woods” toddler has been paraded in front of the cooing viewers, only to then (mercifully) vanish from sight. The difference with Woods is that he never faded from public view. With father Earl ensuring the media were never far away, Tiger won six Junior World Championships, the first when he was only eight-years-old. At 15, he became the youngest winner of the US Junior Amateur and the following year, the first ever multiple winner of that event. He made it three in a row before moving on to become, in 1994, the youngest winner of the US Amateur, which he also won three years in a row. In August 1996, Tiger turned pro, winning two PGA events in three months before claiming the Masters – his first Major title – by a staggering 12 strokes in April 1997.

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Getty Images

HK Golfer PR: The real deal. A definite prodigy. HK Golfer・OCT/NOV 2009

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4

Alexis Thompson

After winning the Junior PGA Championship in 2007 at the ripe old age of 12, “Lexi” became the youngest player ever to qualify for the US Women’s Open, although rounds of 76 and 82 meant she missed the cut by some margin. In 2008, she qualified again, but despite an improved showing she once again failed to make it to the weekend. 2009 has so far proved to be a far more fruitful year for the 14-year-old. She finished in 21st place at the first Major of the season, the Kraft Nabisco, and then played all four rounds at the US Open. Indeed, after the second round, Thompson was lying only five shots off the lead, but a disappointing 78 on Saturday scuppered any title hopes. Nevertheless, her tie for 34th was a magnificent effort for one so young. These Major showings preceded the Junior Solheim Cup, where she won every match. Home-schooled since the age of 11, Thompson comes from a strong golfing family – her brother Nicholas has won more than US$3 million playing on the PGA and Nationwide tours – and is coached by the legendary Jim McLean.

HK Golfer PR: She seems to have it all, but watch this space…

5

Bobby Jones

2

Matteo Manassero

Getty Images (Manassero); Dr Milton Wayne ("Young Tom" Morris)

With average drives of over 290 yards and the best sand save record in the championship, perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that Manassero finished only one shot out of the top-10 in the Open at Turnberry earlier this summer. Those kind of stats generally reap rewards. The Italian also didn’t look out of place playing alongside Tom Watson and Sergio Garcia in the first two rounds. What is a surprise is that that Matteo is only 16-years-old and is the reigning British Amateur Champion – the youngest ever, and the first from Italy. He took over two years off the record of Bobby Cole which had stood since 1966. He was not however the youngest ever Open contestant (see below). A native of Verona, Matteo is almost 6ft tall and will undoubtedly get even stronger and longer as he grows older. He has already won many fans for his smooth swing and roguish Latin charm, but is also refreshingly brisk on the course. Whilst at first glance he cuts a dashing, Seve Ballesteroslike figure, he also seems to be sporting a nascent beer belly, which implies he may end up resembling fellow countryman and former Open Championship runner-up Constantino Rocca instead. We eagerly await his appearance at next year’s Masters, but it should be pointed out that after his Open heroics, young Manassero failed to progress beyond the third round of the British Boys’ Championship.

HK Golfer PR: Early days, but prodigious feats already accomplished. Great things expected. 64

HK Golfer・OCT/NOV 2009

Getty Images (Thompson / Ishikawa); Augusta National/Getty Images (Bobby Jones)

Famed for his Grand Slam year of 1930 (the “Impregnable Quadrilateral”), and considered by many to be the greatest player of all time, Jones shocked the golfing world when he retired at the age of 28. Having taken up the game at the age of five, Jones swept all before him throughout the southern states before exploding onto the national and international stage in 1916 when he competed in the US Amateur at the age of 14. Competing against some of the most famous names of the day, young Jones reached the third round, his progress garnering countless column inches in newspapers the world over. Clearly he meets the “performing at the level of a highly-trained adult” criterion, but he also had the unfortunate habit of using badly-trained adult language; his on-course tantrums and expletive-filled rants became a cause of significant concern to the USGA. Jones suppressed his inner demons enough to win the US Open in 1923, the first of 13 Majors in twenty attempts before giving up competitive golf two years shy of his thirtieth birthday.

HK Golfer PR: Without question, a wunderkind.

Tom “Young Tom” Morris

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HK Golfer PR: No question. Golf’s Mozart.

HK Golfer PR: A genuinely exciting prospect and a real prodigy.

Ryo Ishikawa

There was much hilarity in the TV commentary box at Turnberry when a young player arrived on the first tee with club head covers that were based on his own likeness. It got worse when close-up cameras revealed his own face with beaming grin was on each of his golf balls. Quite ironic for someone whose nickname is “Hanikami Oji” aka the bashful prince. The young man was 17-year-old Ryo Ishikawa, and he was in Tiger Woods’ group, having qualified by winning the Yomiuri Classic in Japan – his fourth win on that tour. What sets Ishikawa apart is that he won his first tournament as an amateur, aged 15, and three more since turning pro aged 16. He is by far and away the hottest property on the Japan Tour and its most marketable personality. Upwards of 100 members of the press flew in to cover his exploits at the Open. One could be kind and say he matched Woods stroke-for-stroke. Unkindly, that meant they both missed the cut. Cynicism aside, Ryo is one of the very few phenoms who is more than a one-hit wonder, and his achievements to date are very impressive indeed.

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Son of “Old Tom” - an outstanding player who himself won four of the first eight Opens played - “Young Yom” remarkably proved to be as good if not better than his legendary father. After playing in professional tournaments and winning an exhibition match aged 13 in 1864, he became the youngest ever Open Championship participant just one year later. His first professional tournament win came at the age of 16 (at Carnoustie of all places), then in 1868 he won his first Open, scoring the event’s first ever hole-in-one in the process. Aged 17, he is still to this day the youngest winner of any Major. Over the next few years there was no stopping “Young Tom”. After racking up his third win in a row at the Open in 1870, he was allowed him to keep the Challenge Belt, the “silverware” awarded to the champion. When he won the Open for a record fourth consecutive time in 1872 (no championship was played in 1871), his was the first name engraved on the Claret Jug, which had been bought to replace the belt. Sadly, Morris died just a few short years later at the age of 24.

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7

Sergio Garcia

HK Golfer PR: El Nino is still a relatively young man, and (major wins aside) has been hugely successful on tour. A true prodigy.

8

Michelle Wie

The Hawaiian phenom burst onto the scene in 2000 when, aged 10, she became the youngest ever qualifier for the Women's US Amateur Public Links Championship. By 11 she won the Hawaii Women's Championship and advanced to the match play stages of the Public Links. In 2002, she won another Hawaiian tournament, and as a result became the youngest ever qualifier for an LPGA event. In 2003 she became the youngest winner of a senior USGA event when she won the Public Links. She also featured prominently in several Majors that year, including at the Kraft Nabisco where she fired a third round 66 and ended up playing in the final group. Over the next few years, she continued to play well, but all was not rosy in the Wie garden. Her father received criticism for his behavior when caddying for Michelle, and her career took an unexpected turn when her management company (with her family’s consent) started entering her for men's events. A week before her sixteenth birthday she turned professional and became instantly wealthy, thanks to over US$10 million worth of annual sponsorship deals with the likes of Nike, Sony and others. Unfortunately, the bad press continued, with thinly veiled accusations of cheating when Wie quit during a round when 14-overpar through sixteen holes. There is an LPGA regulation that anyone scoring 88 or over is banned from any further events that season. Wie said her wrist was sore, but the incident further damaged an already tattered reputation. Her recent demeanor and form (including an excellent showing at the Solheim Cup where she was undefeated) has pundits once again predicting great things. Having only just turned 20, Wie certainly has time on her side, but it should be noted that she hasn’t won a tournament of any kind since she was 13 and she has also never won a 72-hole stroke play event. Surely that will change?

HK Golfer PR: Genuinely gifted youngster who has been appallingly mismanaged from a golfing aspect. 66

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9

Jack Nicklaus

Arguably the greatest player of all time, not many remember that the 18-time Major champion was also a prolific amateur player before turning pro in 1961. As a child, the Golden Bear successfully overcame a bout of polio and was then advised to try the healthy sport of golf. He took up the game aged 10 and reportedly scored 51 over the first nine holes he ever played. By 13 he had broken 70 for the first time and had captured the first of five straight Ohio State Junior titles. At 15, he qualified for his first US Amateur, but he wouldn’t win the first of his two titles until four years later. His “prodigy” label stems from his victory over a professional field at the 1956 Ohio Open, aged 16. As was common in those days, Jack remained an amateur until he was 22, by which time he had posted the low score for an amateur at the US Open – 282 when finishing second to Arnold Palmer in 1960. Nicklaus is also one of a select group whose first professional win was the US Open, which came just two years later at Oakmont.

HK Golfer PR: A great junior record, which perhaps could have been even better had he ventured outside his home state of Ohio more regularly. HKGOLFER.COM

10 Jason Hak

Hong Kong’s very own candidate for wunderkind status. In 2008, the Tsim Sha Tsui-born, now Florida-based Hak qualified for the UBS Hong Kong Open by winning the qualifying event held over the North Course at Kau Sai Chau. Impressive, but he eclipsed that achievement by making the cut, and in doing so breaking the record previously held by Sergio Garcia. What made Jason stand out however was the manner in which he made the weekend play: seemingly out of contention, he birdied the final two holes of his second round to make it right on the number. In the final round Hak fired a twounder-par 68 playing alongside two-time Masters Champion José María Olazábal, beating the Spaniard by a shot thanks to a gutsy last-hole birdie. Since last year’s heroics, Jason has continued to impress in junior events in the US, the highlight of which came at Walnut Cove where he shot a 64 in winning the AJGA Cliffs Championship.

Sports Illustrated/Getty Images (Nicklaus); Charles McLaughlin (Hak)

Getty Images (Garcia / Wie)

His wunderkind credentials include his early nickname, "El Nino", which means the golden boy (in his native Spain it's a term for the Christ-child). Sergio started playing when he was three years old, and won his first adult tournament aged 12. In 1995, aged 15, he became the youngest player to win the European Amateur and also became the youngest player to make a cut on the European tour. This record stood until it was broken by Hong Kong’s own Jason Hak in 2008 (see below). Garcia turned professional in 1997 and became a media star overnight when he narrowly lost in a duel with Tiger Woods for the PGA Championship at Medinah two years later. His miraculous recovery shot from behind a tree at the sixteenth hole in the final round of the event remains one of the championship’s greatest ever. Also in 1999 he became the youngest player to play in the Ryder Cup and his record in the biennial team event is exceptional. Garcia is currently saddled with the dreaded "Best Player to Never Win a Major" tag, with 15 top-10 finishes. While he has consistently some of the best ballstriking stats on the PGA Tour, he also has some of the worst when it comes to putting. When his flatstick is working, he is almost unbeatable; but it remains his achilles heel. A joy to watch when he is happy and playing well, he is a miserable piece of work when things aren't going his way. From spitting in the hole at a PGA Tour event a couple of years ago to muttering about bad luck and conspiracies, he is also known as “Surly Sergio” among golf followers. As with many intuitive players his emotional style of play is both his biggest strength and his core weakness.

HK Golfer PR: The record books already show a prodigious achievement. So, great players one and all, and from amazingly young ages too. Sadly, history tells us that the odds are that Matteo, Alexis, Ryo, Michelle and Jason will slide into obscurity, but who knows? Let’s hope that one or more of these shining stars will go supernova for us and confirm that we’re currently witnessing the emergence of the next generation of golfing legends. HK Golfer・OCT/NOV 2009

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0910Top10Prodigies  

Mak Lok-lin, HK Golfer's roving correspondent, reflects on his credentials as a wunderkind and profiles the players - both past and present...

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